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How We Defend Ourselves against Pain

We all have our fears, guilty pleasures, and anxious thoughts that plague our every day lives. College students, in particular, are getting their first tastes of independence, and as a result, they struggle with unprecedented mental and emotional hurdles that they have never dealt with before. This can be quite a confusing time for them as they are developing into young adults and transitioning into new chapters of their lives. Upon introspection, students may question why they reacted a certain way to an issue or why they felt the way they felt.  According to Simply Psychology, defense mechanisms are “psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings”. These were first introduced by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, in 1874, and have been widely adopted by psychologist today. Psychology Today has a great combination of several common defense mechanisms that many people, especially college students, use to deal with their “unacceptable” thoughts, feelings, and actions.

  1. Denial: When a painful or threatening experience occurs, many people protect themselves from the pain by insisting that the situation never happened. For instance, Maria applied to her dream medical school program and was unfortunately rejected. To cope, she pretends she never received the bad news and carries on with her day as if nothing happened.
  2. Repression: A similar defense mechanism to denial is repression, where someone refuses to think about the issue at hand and avoids the problem. Henry, a history major, is taking a Biology class in the natural sciences to satisfy distribution requirements. He has an upcoming exam, but since he struggles with the sciences, he puts off studying for the exam. By filling his time with other assignments, he avoids the stress of having to tackle concepts that are not his forte.
  3. Regression: As college students are overwhelmed with academic and social stressors, they may cope by stepping back into an earlier developmental stage of life where they felt more secure and safe. This is regression. It can manifest in extreme ways such as adults wetting their beds, or more common displays like calling one’s parents more often or throwing tantrums when your roommate forgets to do the dishes.
  4. Projection: A common way of dealing with social anxiety is projection. This is the act of attributing certain feelings or actions onto other people who do not inherently display these feelings or actions themselves. It is a way for the person experiencing the anxiety to relieve built up tension by talking about it in the context of another person. With college comes a whole new level of social interactions. Some students may be more shy than others, so Ellen, who suffers from social anxiety and believes herself to be shy, may talk about how awkward Kelly was during a conversation as a way to direct the attention and problem to someone else. This releases some internal pressure for Ellen because was able to talk about her social anxiety in a context that does not reveal her own insecurities.
  5. Reaction formation: A paradoxical way of coping with stress is by acting in ways that are opposite to what you actually feel, usually in exaggerated behaviors. This is called reaction formation. If Greg feels stressed about an upcoming economics exam, to deal with the stress, he pretends like he is completely prepared for it when his peers ask him how his studying is going. Sarah may be jealous that her friend earned a higher score on the last English paper, but instead, she goes above and beyond to congratulate her by buying her a vanilla latte.
  6. Rationalization: Rationalization is probably the most common and discrete defense mechanism. Rationalization is creating excuses for your feelings, thoughts, or actions that are unacceptable. For example, Josh has severe social anxiety in meeting new people in large groups. His club at school is holding a social event where students can connect with each other. Josh makes the excuse that he is unable to attend due to an upcoming exam.
  7. Intellectualization: Intellectualization is trying to set aside your emotional view of the stressful situation by dealing with the issue in a more logical and cerebral way. One of the most common examples is finding out a loved one has an incurable illness, so you go on WebMD and try to learn everything about the illness from an intellectual standpoint to channel your attention away from your emotions and into something that requires your mental energy.
  8. Displacement: Especially in the adult world, you will most likely have superiors who hold a certain amount of power over you. Sometimes those people can rub you the wrong way. Displacement is the act of redirecting those distasteful feelings or habits to something or someone that is less threatening or risky. For example, Clara might be struggling in her physics course because the professor is lousy at teaching and spends his time talking about entirely unrelated topics. It would be completely unacceptable for her to march right up to the professor and scream “You are a horrible teacher! I don’t understand anything you are saying!”, so when her roommate asks how physics studying is going, Clara yells at her roommate instead. Clara knows that her roommate will most likely get over her angry outburst and there will be little repercussions. However, the same cannot be said if she acted in the same way towards her professor; she would likely be looking at removal from the class or even possible suspension.
  9. Sublimation: The most useful and productive defense mechanism is sublimation which involves transforming your unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or actions into acceptable forms. A classic example is when a naturally aggressive person decides to play football to release some of the aggression, or when someone who obsesses over organization becomes the secretary of a club.

Some defense mechanisms are adaptive and supportive, while others are less helpful and more harmful. According to Psychology Today, sublimation is a mature defense, displacement, reaction formation, and repression are intermediate defenses, and projection, denial, and rationalization are immature defenses. It is helpful to examine ourselves from time to time to evaluate our own defense mechanisms and to determine whether those are healthy, mature behaviors or unproductive, harmful habits. You can visit for further behavioral health services and more information.

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