Thursday, October 11, 2012

Regression: Defense mechanisms by Sigmund Freud

What is Regression?

Regression is the reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable thoughts or impulses. When confronted by stressful events, people sometimes abandon coping strategies and revert to patterns of behavior used earlier in development. According to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, regression is a defense mechanism leading to the temporary or long-term reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way.

Anna Freud suggested that people act out behaviors from the stage of psychosexual development in which they are fixated. For example, an individual fixated at an earlier developmental stage might cry or sulk upon hearing unpleasant news. Psychiatrist Joel Gold suggests that careful use of "ARISE" (Adaptive Regression in the service of the Ego) can sometimes yield creative benefits. To the extent that one is handling thoughts and impulses less like an adult, ARISE involves play, appreciation and primitive pleasures, and imagination.

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Examples of Regression

The regression as defense mechanism can be clearly observed in the childhood stage of development, however, it is not unusual to see such a way of coping with stressful life events among adults as well:

  • An older child will suddenly begin again to wet the bed or suck his thumb when the new baby comes home.
  • A college student, away from home for the first time, will want to bring her teddy bear with her.
  • A wife refuses to drive a car even though it causes the family much disorganization. A result of her refusal is that her husband has to take her everywhere.
  • Regressions are a common culprit in marital unhappiness. Suddenly, the man no longer sees his wife as a peer, a friend, a lover, a mate -- he sees the critical mother! And he tantrums. He whines. He pouts. He turns passive-aggressive.
  • A person who suffers a mental breakdown assumes a fetal position, rocking and crying. Regressing when under a great deal of stress, a person may be refusing to leave the bed and engage in normal, everyday activities.
  • A person who has suffered a difficult divorce or death of a spouse may want to revisit the home of his/her childhood – those tender years before pain overruled all other feelings.

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Regression Link with Stage of Psychosexual Development

Regressive behavior can be complex and harmful, or simple and harmless. A person may revert to an old, usually immature behavior to ventilate feelings of frustration. Regression reflects the basic tendency to gain instinctual gratification at a less-developed period. It is actually a normal phenomenon when it is appear in reasonable perspectives, as a certain amount of regression is essential for relaxation, sleep, and orgasm in sexual intercourse. Regression is also considered an essential concomitant of the creative process. Regression only becomes a problem when it is used frequently to avoid adult situations and causes problems in the individual's life.

So, regression is a form of retreat, going back to a time when the person felt safer and where the stresses in question were not known, or where an all-powerful parent would take them away.

In a Freudian view, the stress of fixations caused by frustrations of the person’s past psychosexual development may be used to explain a range of regressive behaviors, including:
  • Oral fixation can lead to increase smoking or eating, or vocal actions including verbal abuse.
  • Anal fixation can lead to anal retentive behaviors such as tidying and fastidiousness. Obsessive-compulsive disorders can occur including those that lead to cruelty, extreme orderliness, or miserliness
  • Phallic fixation can lead to conversion hysteria (the transformation of psychic energy into physical symptoms) which is disguised sexual impulses.

Freud recognized that “it is possible for several fixations to be left behind in the course of development, and each of these may allow an eruption of the libido that has been pushed off - beginning, perhaps, with the later acquired fixations, and going on, as the illness develops, to the original ones”.

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How to Deal?

If the person with whom you are communicating is showing regressive symptoms, you can respond to their child state in several ways, including taking a parent position of authority (nurturing or controlling) or join them in their child place (thus building alignment).

Regression as Therapeutic Approach

Sigmund Freud introduced the idea of regression as a way to explain his patients' emotional or uncontrolled behaviors and moods. He suggested that in the course of development a person may become "fixated" at a stage, and find it difficult to continue to mature properly; regression is a process that helps the person to address that stage and move on from it. Some of Freud's followers, such as Sandor Ferenczi, stressed regression as a useful part of psychotherapy, but also felt that it was possible to encourage regression by behaving in parental or nurturing ways to patients, even holding their hands or cuddling them.

Following World War II, regression was often discussed as part of the treatment for adults and children who had been traumatized during the war. John Bowlby, the developer of attachment theory, commented optimistically on treatments that encouraged regression by caring for children as if they were infants. Similarly, Bruno Bettelheim proposed to treat autistic children by feeding them with bottles and providing lavish amounts of candy and other treats. These practices were apparently based on the idea that if people could be caused to regress in their development, they could then be guided to recapitulate or repeat the steps of early development and to emerge as mature beings.

Regression was taken so seriously that research by T.X. Barber was done on people who were "hypnotically regressed" to see whether their behavior was really appropriate for the age they were supposed to be. In fact, it was not really appropriate-- but it was the behavior the participants were convinced was appropriate for particular ages. Nevertheless, the encouragement of regression remained part of some systems of psychotherapy, especially in Britain, where "famous names" like Donald Winnicott and Michael Balint considered regression an important part of their methods. In the 1970s, R.D. Laing encouraged regression as part of his attempts to treat serious mental illnesses. Transactional Analysis in the United States involved similar attitudes.

Today, psychoanalysts may still use the regression concept as it was suggested by Freud, but are most unlikely to use "reparenting" techniques. Cognitive-behavioral psychologists are unlikely to use the concept at all. However, unconventional treatments such as Attachment Therapy may still employ what they call "age regression" methods, rocking, bottle-feeding, and diapering older children in an effort to send them back to early developmental stages, although in 2006 the American Professional Society on Abuse of Children decried such practices.

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