When we become aware of a stressor, the rising level of anxiety triggers an automatic psychological process of self-protection. This automatic defense mechanism often results in an immediate reduction of anxiety and therefore is perceived as “working” well. However, we may not be fully aware of what these defenses are and how they operate. There are 7 levels and as many as 31 different types of defense against stress, and we have a choice in selecting the ones that are most appropriate to the circumstances. And, of course, they are all available immediately and free to use.
Selecting the best defense gives us a better approach to handling the stressor and its consequences. As we make adjustments to our response, we can choose a different defense at a higher level and see how much or how little of it we need to protect ourselves against the discomfort of anxiety. We may also use more than one defense mechanism at one time. Let’s get to know what they are after the jump.
Level 7: Total Defensive Failure
When our system is unable to face the stressor and fails to produce an effective response, it breaks from reality and takes refuge into one of the three worst defense postures: delusional projection, psychotic denial and psychotic distortion. The stress reaction is not contained, anxiety grows to dangerous levels, and there is a breakdown in reality testing. These defenses signal a flight into psychosis. Definitely not recommended.
Level 6: Acting Out Defenses
In response to a stressor, these defenses typify the fight (acting out and passive aggression) and flight (apathetical withdrawal from the situation) reactions. They also include the help-rejecting complaining defense, which often ends up making a bad situation worse by preventing access to whatever support may be available. None of these defenses are recommended.
Level 5: The Fantasy Island Defenses
These ways of reacting to a stressor may reduce anxiety, but at the expense of rationality. They include autistic fantasy (daydreaming and fleeing into a world of pure fantasy), projective identification (attributing to others our own unacceptable feelings) and splitting (compartmentalizing and alternating between feeling great and feeling terrible about something or someone). These defenses often appear as a natural reaction to severe and unexpected traumas and catastrophic events. Whenever there is a choice, one should choose a higher level of defense than this.
Level 4: I’ll Think About It Tomorrow Defenses
The defenses of denial, projection and rationalization have the effect of reducing anxiety by pushing unpleasant and unacceptable thoughts and feelings out of awareness. By refusing to accept the existence of the stressor, denying any responsibility in it, or reassuring ourselves with self-serving explanations we may end up feeling a little better. These defenses can work only temporarily and therefore they are not good choices toward an effective and adequate response to the stressor.
Level 3: Regulatory Defenses
Minor distortion in our self-esteem level may be helpful in handling an unpleasant and painful situation, as means of providing temporary relief. These defenses include devaluation (exaggerating our responsibility or that of others in the stressful event), idealization (attributing exaggerated positive qualities to others), and omnipotence (feeling and acting god-like in the face of adversity). This level of defense is the best so far, but not yet in the recommended zone.
Level 2: Inhibited Defenses
At this level, defenses reduce anxiety by keeping bad thoughts and feelings at bay and not allowing them to threaten our stability. They include displacement (transferring the focus onto something or someone else), dissociation (separating psychologically from the stressor), intellectualization (coming up with a “good” explanation), isolation of emotion (refusing to experience the feeling that would be appropriate to the situation), reaction formation (pretending to feel the exact opposite), repression (“sucking it up” by pushing it down), and undoing (making up for the stressor with “good” actions and behaviors). Although not ideal, these defenses can and do work in certain situations, whenever the best defenses are not available.
Level 1: The 8 Best Defenses Against Stress
Defenses at this level are the best available choices in reacting to real or perceived psychological stressors because they appeal to our higher capacity for adaptation and accommodation. With a little practice, they can become our first choice in most stressful circumstances. In alphabetical order, they are:
- Anticipation (the ability to anticipate consequences and evaluate responses)
- Affiliation (turning to others for help and support)
- Altruism (taking into account the needs of others)
- Humor (finding the amusing and the ironic in the situation)
- Self-assertion (expressing feelings and thoughts directly and openly)
- Self-observation (reflecting on one’s own reactions and regulating them appropriately)
- Sublimation (channeling negative feelings into positive behaviors)
- Suppression (intentionally avoiding catastrophic, negative and pessimistic thoughts).
Which Do You Choose?
The choice depends largely on the circumstances of the stressor, whether it was expected or unexpected, and the resources available to deal with it. The bottom six levels may end up being defenses that are adopted, but only level 1 defenses and to some extent level 2 represent real choices that reflect a well adjusted and optimal utilization of resources.