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When Your Defence Mechanisms Harm More Than Help

When Your Defence Mechanisms Harm More Than Help

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Are you struggling to manage stress? Do you often find your interpersonal relationships to be challenging? Do you feel like there’s a disconnect between how you feel and how you react? These may be signs that your defence mechanisms are working against you.

Our body has countless ways of protecting itself from harm; a flinch when a ball comes too close to our eyes, a reflexive jerk away from a hot pan, or a burst of energy to run from a dangerous situation. When it comes to our minds, we have a similar range of ways to protect our psyche, but they may not be as easy for us to immediately identify. These defence mechanisms help to ease or dull the emotional pain inflicted through trauma, criticism and stress, as well as mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

Some of these defence mechanisms serve us well, alleviating the impact of emotional harm without compromising our relationships with others or prolonging a resolution to the initial source of our pain. However, other types of defences can actually cause further harm in the long run, stunting our ability to develop emotionally and build successful relationships. 

Identifying our defence mechanisms and cultivating awareness about how these affect us is an important step in assessing our mental health and knowing when we need to develop different coping skills.

What are Common Types of Unhealthy Defence Mechanisms?

When confronted with emotional pain, our brain can default to a variety of defence mechanisms in order to protect itself. Over time, we may subconsciously favour some, gradually incorporating these into our coping skills toolbox, even if they aren’t healthy for us overall. Here are a few of the most common types of unhealthy defence mechanisms:

1. Denial

Perhaps the most well-known of defence mechanisms, denial involves a refusal to acknowledge a problem or issue in an attempt to avoid anxiety around it. However, the mental energy needed to maintain a lack of conscious awareness is often detrimental to the person in denial. Denial is a hallmark of addiction, as many people with substance abuse disorders will adamantly refuse to accept that they have a problem. Trauma survivors and abuse victims may also use denial as a way to cope.

2. Projection

“This has nothing to do with me! You’re just projecting!” Chances are you’ve heard something similar to this at some point, since projection is another widely-recognised defence mechanism. Projection occurs when we ascribe traits that we don’t like about ourselves to those around us. Projection initially benefits us by allowing us to express our feelings about things we are uncomfortable with, but ultimately works against us because it makes someone around us the “fall guy” for these behaviours instead of fostering personal accountability and growth.

3. Repression

When something is simply too painful for our mind to bear, it may completely repress the memory so that we are not consciously aware of it. Despite this blank spot in our conscious experience, the reverberations from this traumatic experience in our subconscious continue to impact our interactions and relationships.

4. Rationalisation

You’ve made a mistake, or had a feeling or idea that is unacceptable in some way, and now the discomfort of it is pushing another common defence mechanism; rationalisation. This is when a person will find a seemingly logical explanation to defer blame or justify what’s just occurred. For example, if your crush ghosts you after the second date, you respond by claiming that you weren’t that into them anyway. Or if you missed out on a big promotion, you might explain that you really didn’t want the extra responsibilities of the new role. Rationalisation can be limiting over the long-term, affecting both the way you see yourself as well as impacting your goals for the future.

5. Reaction Formation

You really don’t like one of your co-workers, but the potential for conflict makes you anxious. So, your mind copes by behaving in the exact opposite way – being friendly and welcoming to that person. This is the product of reaction formation, when we react in the opposite of our true feelings in an attempt to minimise discomfort. Unfortunately, this regular contradiction of our actual emotions or beliefs can create further anxiety in the long term, as tension between our true feelings and ingenuine actions builds.

6. Passive-Aggression

Another defence mechanism that arises out of the psyche’s desire to avoid conflict, passive-aggression channels anger indirectly rather than confronting the source of it. This can result in behaviours such as avoidance, the silent treatment, or sarcasm. Passive-aggression can be damaging to relationships as it fails to address the root causes of conflict and seeks to punish others rather than engage in constructive dialogue towards solutions.

7. Regression

For some, situations of high stress can cause our behaviour to revert to an earlier stage of development. In regression, being overwhelmed can trigger a mental flight back to a psychological comfort zone as the mind seeks to manage trauma or stress. This may be temporary – curling into a foetal position after hearing bad news – or more habitual. For example, road rage is a type of regression commonly seen in response to anxiety around driving, and can occur on a regular basis for some. This type of defence mechanism is counter-productive in adult interactions with others.

How are Unhealthy Defence Mechanisms Treated?

Defence mechanisms aren’t always easy to immediately identify, let alone change. These deeply ingrained psychological habits often require professional support to fully understand and untangle. A therapist can work with you using a variety of methods to help break problematic cycles of coping and learn healthier ways to manage anxiety, stress, and depression.

Cognitive behaviour therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy designed to help identify root causes of negative thinking or behaviour and analyse the impacts of problematic patterns on daily life. CBT helps to teach alternatives to these patterns, with the therapist working closely with the patient to learn and practise healthier coping skills and ways of approaching problems.

Dialectical behaviour therapy

Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) is a type of CBT used for high-risk patients, such as those with suicidal ideation, who may have had challenges finding success with other treatment. DBT promotes a blend of acceptance of aspects of mental health issues as well as healthy changes in patterns of thought and behaviour. In particular, DBT focuses on teaching mindfulness, managing emotions, successfully navigating relationships, and tolerating stress.

Psychodynamic therapy

Psychodynamic therapy focuses on helping the patient understand their relationship with the world around them, identifying current problems and developing solutions. Psychodynamic therapy works best for patients who have the ability to reflect on themselves, with the therapist acting as a facilitator and guide for this process. 

Mindfulness based approaches

Mindfulness based approaches work to cultivate awareness of the present moment and to bring attention to thoughts as they arise. Therapists then help patients understand physical and emotional sensations around these thoughts, and to practise observing them without judgement or reaction. These types of approaches are beneficial in assisting patients in managing emotions and controlling behaviour in stressful situations. 

Learning to Manage Your Defences at The Dawn Rehab Thailand

Learning to Manage Your Defences at The Dawn

The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab Thailand is a residential treatment facility that fosters an environment of personal growth and healing for people who want to change their lives and overcome addiction or mental health issues. 

Internationally accredited by the American Accreditation Commission International (AACI), and nationally licenced by the Thai Ministry of Health, The Dawn caters to a primarily international clientele and offers a person-centred treatment approach. Treatment plans are drawn up to meet the needs of  each individual  by using a holistic treatment method and modern techniques with proven results.

Mental Health Retreat in Thailand

Our centre is conveniently located just outside the beautiful city of Chiang Mai, Thailand, a one-hour flight from the country’s capital of Bangkok. At our tranquil riverfront property, you are completely removed from your triggers and immersed in a safe and soothing environment where you can focus solely on your healing. 

Call The Dawn today to learn more about our compassionate and comprehensive programming.

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