Regression is a relatively common defense mechanism that you have probably witnessed on occasion or even put into practice. For example, have you ever had to deal with an adult who acted like a child? Does your partner respond with full-blown tantrums when feeling distressed? Have you felt extremely vulnerable in a painful situation, even though you weren’t? Or maybe you respond childishly under pressure? In all of those cases, it is likely that the reason for those behaviors is regression.
What is regression and why does it occur?
According to Sigmund Freud, regression is an unconscious defense mechanism that causes temporary or long-term reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development. In practice, instead of managing unacceptable impulses in a mature way, we regress to earlier stages of life.
In fact, regression is a relatively common behavior in childhood, usually caused by stress, frustration, or a traumatic event. Children often display regressive behavior to communicate their distress. For that reason, they may return to wetting the bed in response to their parents’ divorce or lose vocabulary in reaction to bullying. When the underlying problem is addressed, the regressive behavior is usually corrected.
However, in adults, regression can occur at any age and involves returning to an earlier developmental stage – be it emotional, social, or behavioral. As in childhood, emotions such as insecurity, fear, or anger can trigger the regression mechanism in adulthood.
Basically, we return to the level of development where we felt most secure and comfortable because there was no anxiety or stress, a stage where we had no responsibilities and our parents could “rescue” us – or so we remember it. Therefore, the regression to childhood is an attempt by the ego to protect itself from a reality that surpasses it, seeking the lost security in another stage of its life. Regression gives it a foothold to hold on to.
How to differentiate useful regressive behavior from pathological?
The manifestations of regression essentially depend on the psychological stage in which the person is fixed. For example, a person might become more physically aggressive or have tantrums if he goes back to the stage where he couldn’t express his emotions in words, around age 3. Instead, he could become messy, irreverent, and irresponsible if he returns to his teens.
In fact, regressive behavior can be simple or complex, harmful or harmless, both to the regressed person and to those around him. Carl Jung, for example, had a more positive view of childhood regression. He thought that regression is not simply a return to infantilism, but an attempt to reach an emotional state that we need in the present to face some problem or obstacle, such as the feeling of contentment, the love we received in childhood, the childish innocence or the confidence we felt at that stage of life.
The fetal position that we adopt when we feel bad or cry inconsolably is an example of regression as a defense mechanism. It is also clinging to that stuffed animal that we have since we were little. These punctual regressive behaviors are not pathological or negative. Sometimes temporary regressions can be useful to help us overcome discomfort and regain calm, confidence and security in ourselves.
However, on other occasions, regressive behavior is a manifestation of an inadequate or maladaptive coping style to manage stress, so that it usually does not resolve the situation, but often makes it worse. A person who is going through a relationship crisis and shows regressive behavior, for example, will hardly be able to solve latent conflicts.
Regression becomes especially problematic in environments where important decisions need to be made as we have to face reality, rather than run from it. In these cases, fleeing to the past is not the solution, especially when in that past we have few psychological tools.
In fact, a study carried out at the Instituto Universitário de Lisboa indicated that the regression could be strongly correlated with situations of high uncertainty that generate doubts. In this case, it would be an attempt by the person to leave decisions in the hands of others, escaping from a responsibility that he is unable or unwilling to assume.
How to disable the regression defense mechanism?
Many times life does not go according to our plans. Strategic decisions, calculated moves, and premeditated events can take very different directions than what expected, leaving us baffled, overwhelmed and downright distraught. The way we manage that stress will depend on our personality, resilience and the strength of our coping mechanisms.
However, admitting that things have not gone according to plan and that we feel overwhelmed by circumstances is a good starting point. When we recognize what is happening, we leave less room for the unconscious to “manage” problems for us because we consciously take charge.
If we notice regressive behaviors, instead of beating ourselves up, it’s best that we empathize with that little inner child who tries to protect us. Treating ourselves with love and kindness is better than mistreating ourselves in circumstances that are already hard and stressful.
It is also useful to inquire into what we feel, to name those suspicious emotions and feelings that we might be experiencing. That will help us tune in to that emotional part that is scaring and pushing us to adopt regressive behaviors.
Then we must work on developing trust. If we feel safe and confident in our ability to go on, no matter what, it will not be necessary to activate defense mechanisms such as regression.
To conclude, we must bear in mind that, although regression can help us reduce and control stress at a given moment, its systematic use can have a negative impact on our way of responding to changes in life, affecting our mental health in the long run.
Costa, R. M. (2020) Regression (Defense Mechanism) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences; 10.1007: 4346–4348.
Lokko, H. N. & Stern, T. A. (2015) Regression: Diagnosis, Evaluation, and Management. Prim Care Companion CNS Disord; 17(3): 10.4088.
Segal, D. L. et. Al. (2007). Defense mechanism differences between younger and older adults: A cross-sectional investigation. Aging & Mental Health; 11(4): 415–422.