Lesson in how to manage difficulties: How to develop effective coping strategies

We all use different kinds of strategies to manage uncomfortable situations, impulses, thoughts and feelings.

These strategies can be unconscious, that is, we are not aware of that we are using them.

They can also be deliberate strategies, then often referred to as coping strategies. Coping strategies help us deal with difficult situations constructively and with as little unnecessary suffering as possible.

One of the main aims in all kinds of psychologically based therapies is to develop coping strategies for different situations. The goal with these coping strategies are to decrease suffering and increase life satisfaction.

Often, unconscious strategies that we automatically use leads to unwanted side effects, potentially creating more problems in our lives.

The whole range of strategies, from unconscious, automatic reflexes to more deliberate coping strategies are what we mean with defense mechanisms.


What is a defense mechanism

A defense mechanism is a psychological strategy, a manner of thinking and behaving, that we unconsciously or consciously use to protect us from anxiety that arise from ‘unacceptable’ thoughts or feelings fearing being judged by society and loved ones.

Since it is about learnt behavior, we can as adults get insights into this dynamic and thereby freeing us from problematic psychological symptoms as well as learn new, more adaptive defense mechanisms, coping strategies.

Defense mechanisms was first identified and named by Sigismund Freud. Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology through therapy. His daughter Anna Freud and other psychoanalysts have thereafter elaborated on the defense mechanism, as well as identified some more.

Even if some of Freud’s thinking and concepts nowadays are considered dated, the defense mechanisms have stood the test of times and is central for effective psychodynamic therapies such as ISTDP, see for example istdpinstitute.com


When do we use defense mechanism

We all use defense mechanisms. The question is how mature they are – that is, what kind of consequences they create in our lives.

The aim of using a defense mechanism is to protect ourselves from anxiety or guilt that arise when we, our Egos in Sigismund Freud’s term, feel threatened or fear being judged by society and loved ones, the Superego, or pressured by our biological drives and wants, Freud’s concept of the Id.

Hence, anxiety according to this view of the human mind, is a signal to the ego that survival is in danger.

According to Freud and his followers, the ego then uses unconscious defense mechanisms to avoid anxiety and to make us feel better.

The defense mechanisms are not completely under conscious control. We use them to unconsciously protect ourselves by distancing ourselves from full awareness. In this way we can avoid unpleasant thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Hence, the usage of them is both natural and normal. It is when more primitive defenses are used too frequently that anxiety disorders can develop.


How do we develop defense mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are often learnt behaviors during childhood when fearing the consequences and reactions from our loved ones. Since it is about learnt behaviors, we can as adults get insights into this dynamic and thereby freeing us from problematic psychological symptoms as well as learn new, more adaptive defense mechanisms and behaviors.

The unconscious defense mechanisms are called primitive defense mechanism. More primitive defense mechanisms are usually very effective short-term, and hence favored by children and adults who have not learnt better ways of coping with stressful events.

The more primitive, the less effective it will be over time.

Psychodynamic therapies focus on becoming aware of our preferred defense mechanisms and develop more effective strategies, called mature defense mechanisms, in the future.


How to develop more effective strategies

All defense mechanisms are effective but to varying degrees in managing uncomfortable inner conflicts, feelings and thoughts.

The various defense mechanisms differ greatly in their consequences for long-term adaptation to life. That is, how well they help us manage our important relationships and cope with what happens in life.

The psychiatrist Vaillant identified levels of defense varying from immature to mature mirroring potential psychological development in humans:

Level I: Psychotic, pathological defenses. This level is characterized by a pronounced break with objective reality as in psychosis. This is not common among healthy adults, but can be used when under extreme pressure

Level II: Immature, narcissistic defenses: They annoy the observer, but comforts the user

Level III: Intermediate, neurotic defenses: They cause the user more discomfort than the observer

Level IV: Mature, empathic defenses. They result in optimal balance and hence adaptation among conflicting motives when managing stressors. They usually maximize gratification and allow the conscious awareness of feelings, thoughts and consequences.