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Defense Mechanisms


Explanations > Behaviors > Coping > Defense Mechanisms

Anxiety and tension | Defense Mechanisms | So what?


Sigmund Freud describes how the Ego uses a range of mechanisms to handle the conflict between the Id, the Ego and the Super ego. His daughter Anna introduced the principle of inner mechanisms that defend the ego in her 1936 book 'The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense'.

Anxiety and tension

Freud noted that a major drive for most people is the reduction in tension, and that a major cause of tension was anxiety. He identified three different types of anxiety.

Reality Anxiety

This is the most basic form of anxiety and is typically based on fears of real and possible events, such as being bitten by a dog or falling from a ladder.

The most common way of reducing tension from Reality Anxiety is taking oneself away from the situation, running away from the dog or simply refusing to go up the ladder.

Neurotic Anxiety

This is a form of anxiety which comes from an unconscious fear that the basic impulses of the ID (the primitive part of our personality) will take control of the person, leading to eventual punishment (this is thus a form of Moral Anxiety).

Moral Anxiety

This form of anxiety comes from the Superego in the form of a fear of violating values and moral codes, and appears as feelings of guilt or shame.

Defense Mechanisms

When anxiety occurs, the mind first responds by an increase in problem-solving thinking, seeking rational ways of escaping the situation. If this is not fruitful (and maybe anyway), a range of defense mechanisms may be triggered. These are tactics which the Ego develops to help deal with the Id and the Super Ego.

All Defense Mechanisms share two common properties :

  • They often appear unconsciously.
  • They tend to distort, transform, or otherwise falsify reality.

In distorting reality, there is a change in perception which allows for a lessening of anxiety, with a corresponding reduction in felt tension.

Anna Freud's Defense Mechanisms include:

After the initial list, many other mechanisms for coping with the difficulties life throws at us have been identified by other analysts and authors.

So what?

Psychoanalysis often involves a long series of sessions with the client in which original causes are sought out (often searching through childhood relationships) and cathartic experiences of realization are used to teach the client how these mechanisms are no longer appropriate.

For Freud, the purpose of psychoanalysis was to bring repressed memories, fears and thoughts back to the conscious level of awareness. Two techniques he used are free association and dream analysis. He considered dreams as the "royal road" to the unconscious. He also analyzed and interpreted the various defense mechanisms.

In persuasion, you can watch for these dysfunctional mechanisms in people and either work around them or with them as appropriate.

You should also watch for these mechanisms in yourself, and either learn to handle them or get professional help in doing so.

See also

Coping Mechanisms, Cognitive Dissonance, Freud's Personality Factors, Concepts in psychoanalysis


Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis


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