The Science Behind Defense Mechanisms

Why We Do What We Do

When something upsets you or makes you feel afraid, it’s natural to react defensively. We may rationalize our reaction and convince ourselves that we aren’t afraid or that there’s nothing to fear. But even so, our initial response is often one of self-preservation. Understanding how defense mechanisms work can help you identify and address triggers in your own life. 

What Are Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychological mechanisms that protect us from anxiety, conflict, and other mental discomfort by distorting reality, or the way we perceive things, to make us feel better. They are not pathological but are instead a common part of the human condition: we all use them, to some degree, to get through life. But sometimes, defense mechanisms can get in the way of living a healthy, productive life and cause more problems than they solve. A therapist can help you learn how to recognize when you’re using a defense mechanism and replace it with a more helpful approach.


Also known as suppression, this is the unconscious blocking out of memories, ideas, or feelings that are painful, threatening, or otherwise undesirable. The memories or feelings are not erased, but they do become inaccessible to conscious awareness. Some psychologists believe that repression is not really a defense mechanism but an innate biological process that removes specific details from consciousness.


This is the creation of an imaginary world, usually for the purpose of escapism. Fantasizing about the past, future, or fictional worlds is generally harmless, but when it takes up a significant amount of time, it may indicate an unresolved conflict or mental health issue. Fantasizing is a normal, creative way of dealing with stress, conflict, and uncertainty. It’s often a first step toward solving problems, especially when it comes to relationships. 


This is refusing to acknowledge painful realities or emotions. While repression is more of a blocking out of memories, denial is more about not giving attention to information that’s happening in the present. Denial is a natural and common response to overwhelming situations. Examples of denial include refusing to acknowledge that a loved one is terminally ill, believing that a financial problem will go away if you ignore it, or refusing to admit that you have a problem with alcohol. This can be harmful because it keeps the person from getting the help they need.


This is the tendency to view someone as perfect, flawless, or having more positive qualities than they actually do. This defense mechanism frequently occurs at the beginning of a relationship. This is a common reaction to falling in love. It’s also common among fans and people who admire celebrities, artists, authors, or other public figures. 


This is closely related to imitation. A person unconsciously adopts another person’s attitudes or traits. This defense mechanism is related to the theory that we all have a “role model” or “identity template” that we use to create the person we want to be. When you’re a child, you might identify with your parents, teachers, or other people who are important in your life. As an adult, you might identify with famous people, fictional characters, or people who share your hobbies, interests, or profession.


This is the use of humor, irony, or sarcasm to diffuse a tense situation. Like other defense mechanisms, humor can be used in a healthy way or as a way to avoid facing problems. When humor is used as a defense mechanism, it may indicate that the person is feeling anxious or is having problems coping with a situation.

Defense mechanisms can be helpful, but they can also be harmful when they are used as a way to avoid dealing with an issue. The best way to deal with defense mechanisms is to become aware of when you’re using them. Once you know you’re doing it, it’s easier to stop.

The author of this article is a therapist from the Sensera app. Sensera is a daily 10-minute self-therapy app. It’ll help you to cope with various mental problems (anxiety, self-esteem, relationship issues). Feel better with CBT audio sessions and exercises. Download now to become happier!

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