Dr. Deb’s Mental Health Vitamin: Defend and protect
By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services
An obvious observation is that by merely living in this world, we are subjected to situations, people or events that can trigger anxiety and stress, which can leave us feeling threatened, fearful and overwhelmed. Each of us has relied on our innate defense mechanisms to kick in and protect us, or we have chosen from various means of coping strategies to do the same.
What is the difference between defense mechanisms and coping strategies? A lot!
Defense Mechanisms are largely unconscious mechanisms activated in times of anxiety, stress and distress without any choice or conscious intention. Our defense mechanisms are a necessary tool of protection, and we’re usually unaware we’re using them. Though I personally do not like to use “psycho-babble” (because I believe it’s unnecessary to use it – but that’s another Vitamin, altogether), I am going to refer to some terms that describe the body’s ability to defend and protect itself when feeling attacked.
For example, if you’re with a group of people and you don’t know anyone, though they all know each other, and you’re wondering if you’re dressed right, if anyone will speak to you, if you will be accepted, and if you should do anything, you may begin to feel awkward, embarrassed, shy, fearful and/or annoyed. That’s when one of the following defense mechanisms may kick in:
- Repression: When you quash or repress a feeling/event — “What I don’t remember can’t hurt me, so I merely stick the situation deep into my subconscious then I don’t have to think about it.”
- Projection: When you attribute your unease to someone else – “The other people in the group were feeling awkward, embarrassed and shy … not me.”
- Displacement: When you transfer your discomfort to someone else who has nothing to do with it – “I found myself yelling at the kids – even though they had nothing to do with my experience with that group of people”
- Rationalization: When you justify a feeling or situation that could have reflected negatively on you. You may make up endless reasons to exonerate your awkwardness in the above example — “Anyone in my position would have felt the same way. It’s their fault for the awkwardness, not mine, because I’m OK.”
- Reaction formation: When you attempt to cover up something that’s unacceptable by taking the opposite stance — “I was the center of attention in the group and I felt great!”
- Denial: When you deny having negative or harmful thoughts — “I had a great time talking with that group of people.”
- Regression: When you revert to another time when things were simpler, and you were happier, more secure — “I will throw a tantrum or stick out my tongue whenever that group interaction is mentioned again.”
- Intellectualization: When you try to explain away the negativity of the situation and block the emotion– “Perhaps the group was involved in a discussion of something important and it was appropriate that I not be included.”
- Sublimation: When you take an uncomfortable situation and act it out with an acceptable behavior — “After meeting with that group of people, I went to the gym and sweated out my frustration.”
Coping Strategies are conscious choices made to calm a stressful or overwhelming situation. They can be categorized as active or avoidant. While most coping methods are healthy and effective and may work for a time, some are maladaptive and can end up causing more problems than the actual event one is coping with. Some common coping strategies are:
- Breathe: Taking deep breaths can calm you, relax your body and prevent the escalation of panic/anxiety.
- Write down your feelings: As you unload your feelings in a journal, the mere writing can begin to calm you — and a weight feels as if it’s been lifted.
- Go for a walk: A brisk walk not only gets you out of the immediacy of your feelings but also acts as a calming agent and gives you a new perspective.
- Exercise: A strenuous or intense exercise regimen (jogging, swimming, lifting weights, aerobics) energizes you and provides a sense of accomplishment.
- Read: In your lowest moments, read uplifting and positive literature. Or, dive into the Bible and find respite from your negative emotions.
- Start a project: By diverting your attention to something productive (paint a room, work on a 1000-piece puzzle, overhaul an old car) you are transferring your negative feelings into a project that you can be proud of.
- Talk to a professional: Make an appointment with a trusted therapist and find a positive outlet and plan of action for your current negative state.
Unhealthy or maladaptive coping strategies:
- Avoiding the problem
- Using drugs/alcohol to numb you or to help you “forget””
- Sleeping all day
- Compulsive spending or shopping
Yes, we all have defense mechanisms as well as coping strategies that we draw on when life feels threatening, overwhelming or dangerous. Be wise while managing those negative emotions — and remember, there is no shame in asking for help!