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Defense Mechanisms and Addiction

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Defense Mechanisms Commonly Associated with Substance Abuse Addictions

Defense mechanisms are patterns of thought and behavior that we exhibit in order to resist innate desires and to cope with or avoid facing our faults.

Some desires are socially unfavorable, such as a desire to cheat or steal. Someone, therefore, might exhibit a defense mechanism to deny his or her desire to cheat.

While these can be helpful and healthy in some cases, they can be problematic when exhibited excessively. In the case of addiction, defense mechanisms can perpetuate the substance abuse by justifying or enforcing negative ideations.

Most defense mechanisms enforce a kind of self-denial, to protect yourself from feelings of inadequacy or failure.

When employed excessively, they can become maladaptive and a person may develop neuroses of fear, obsession or anxiety.

These are, of course, attributes that are highly associated with addiction. Anxiety disorder is an especially common issue found in people who abuse substances.

Defense mechanisms are not all bad; they are totally normal, in fact, and often helpful. Everyone experiences frustration when the expectations they have, and that society has, are contradicted by their desires and actions. The mature types of defense mechanisms are healthy ways of coping with this frustration, but awareness about our employment of them is key.

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5 Primitive Defense Mechanisms that Influence the Severity of Drug & Alcohol Addictions

1. Denial

This was one of the first defense mechanisms established in psychoanalysis, reflecting the essential function of these mechanisms. Denial is the simple refusal to accept or admit the truth. People with addictions often deny that their substance abuse is out of control and that they need help.

2. Regression

This is when someone displays behavior from an earlier developmental stage when experiencing improper impulses. Children often use baby talk or suck their thumb, after they have grown out of these behaviors. Adults may regress with attention-seeking behavior or neglect hygiene.

3. Dissociation

When someone becomes detached or unaware of time or self, this is dissociation. A person may feel as though they are distant from surroundings or act uncharacteristically. This is common in people who have experienced childhood trauma or have PTSD, another link to addiction.

4. Compartmentalization

Similar to dissociation, compartmentalization is the division of a person’s attributes into different sections. Some parts of the self are placed out of the individual’s awareness. This allows for behaviors that disagree with the person’s value system.

5. Projection

A very commonly known defense mechanism, projection is when a person attributes his or her own dissatisfactory qualities to others. This is a way of avoiding responsibility for one’s faults and it is very common in addiction.

Defense mechanisms vary in degree of consciousness and adaptiveness. The most primitive defense mechanisms are most widely exhibited by children, but it is common for adults to occasionally display one or two of these.

These ones are the most commonly known, are mostly subconscious—we usually aren’t aware of them in the moment, and often thought of as dysfunctional.

The defense mechanisms typically observed in tandem with addiction usually fall into this category. Here are some common examples of primitive defense mechanisms.

Three Less Primitive Defense Mechanisms 


1. Repression

This is when people unconsciously block unwanted thoughts and feelings. Repressed memories may happen when people have experienced trauma or very high stress. The memory seems to have been forgotten, pushed into an inaccessible part of the mind. In psychoanalytic theory repression plays a major role in many mental illnesses, and in the psyche of the average person.

2. Intellectualization

When facing unacceptable feeling or thought, some people may use an overly critical or logical method of consideration. This kind of over analysis of detail is void of emotionality and provides a perceived distance for the person from the feeling or thought.

3. Rationalization

This is the creation of alternative explanations when faced with unsatisfactory realities. People who relapse, for example, might say things like the 12-step program wasn’t for them, when the program actually helped them a lot. Rationalization encourages irrational or unacceptable behavior, motives, or feelings.

Three Mature Defense Mechanisms for Healthy Coping


1. Sublimation

This is the refocusing of unacceptable impulses and desires into more productive and healthy behaviors. If someone in recovery has a craving to use Heroin, he or she might go to the gym and focus energy on exercising instead. This kind of redirection can be very a healthy practice to prevent a relapse or to manage triggers to abuse alcohol or drugs.

2. Compensation

Sometimes, people contextualize their weaknesses or faults as offset by their strengths. This is called compensation. While societal ideals reach towards perfection, no one can be perfect. So, people might balance their flaws by asserting their strengths.

3. Anticipation

A common practice of addiction aftercare is planning ahead of time for undesirable impulses or feelings, which is classified as anticipation. If someone knows that a particular activity triggers cravings, he or she will plan ways to get through the cravings before the activity.

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These are healthy for the most part. They can help people in recovery to cope with feelings of inadequacy and negative impulses.

Working Through Defense Mechanisms in Rehab and Therapy

During addiction treatment, many people exhibit different defense mechanisms. Denial, projection, regression, and repression are some very common ones. Many people who struggle with addiction already battle low self-esteem, feelings of failure, and guilt. They employ defense mechanisms, like everyone else, to avoid feeling even worse about themselves.

At effective treatment centers, patients build self-image and healthy coping mechanisms through many exercises. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one effective therapy method. CBT aims to bring negative or unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors to light, establishing new ones that are more functional and healthy.

Some treatment centers use strength and yoga therapy to enforce wellness and reconnect patients with physical fitness. Exercise also can serve as a form of sublimation—a healthy defense mechanism that helps many people to avoid behaviors that are not in their best interest.

Expressive therapy is another way to combat unhealthy defense mechanisms. Expressive therapy helps patients to express and accept difficult realities and move on, instead of denying, justifying and perpetuating substance abuse.

Our addiction treatment center network works to connect people with effective treatment centers. These treatment centers allow patients to shift their perspectives around substance abuse—teaching how addiction is a disease, no one’s fault and that it is possible to recover.

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Reliable Sources Matter to ABTRS

When it comes to seeking substance abuse treatment, the research you do will directly impact you or your loved one’s future. ABTRS feels it is important that the sources you get your information from should be with you or your loved one’s best interest in mind and unbiased. Treatment for an addiction is life changing and without reputable sources to point us in the right direction, it can be discouraging navigating treatment options and insurance eligibility. To empower you with the knowledge needed to leave active addiction behind, we provide our sources we used to make our webpages, printed material, and statistics. Our reputable sources might be a dry read but it is worth it when it comes to your future.

Core.ac.uk. (2013). Relationship between defense mechanisms and coping styles among relapsing addicts. [online] Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/82633793.pdf [Accessed 21 Feb. 2019].

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