Anxiety and Ego-Defense Mechanisms



In Freud's view, the human is driven towards tension reduction, in order to reduce feelings of anxiety.



Anxiety :  an aversive inner state that people seek to avoid or escape.



Humans seek to reduce anxiety through defense mechanisms


Defense Mechanisms can be psychologically healthy or maladaptive, but tension reduction is the overall goal in both cases.


A comprehensive list of Defense Mechanisms was developed by Anna Freud, Sigmund's daughter. 


       Anna remained with her Father throughout his life, never marrying.  In Freudian terms, she remained trapped in her Oedipus complex, never giving up her longing to possess her father sexually.

       However, because of a strong ego and super ego, this ID based desires were sublimated into psychological creativity which advanced Freudian theory, her father's greatest love.


Freud specified three major types of anxiety :



Reality Anxiety  : the most basic form, rooted in reality.  Fear of a dog bite, fear arising from an impending accident.  (Ego Based Anxiety)


Most Common Tension Reduction Method :

Removing oneself from the harmful situation.


Neurotic Anxiety : Anxiety which arises from an unconscious fear that the libidinal impulses of the ID will take control at an in opportune time. This type of anxiety is driven by a fear of punishment that will result from expressing the ID's desires without proper sublimation.



Moral Anxiety : Anxiety which results from fear of violating moral or societal codes, moral anxiety appears as guilt or shame.


       In this conception of Anxiety, we can see why Freud concentrated on strengthening the Ego through psychoanalysis.




                     Defense Mechanisms



When some type of anxiety occurs, the mind responds in two ways :


First, problem solving efforts are increases,


and Secondly, defense mechanisms are 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 can operate unconsciously


They can distort, transform, or falsify reality is some way.


The changing of perceived reality allows for a lessening of anxiety, reducing the psychological tension felt by an individual.



Types of Defense Mechanisms:





The most basic defense mechanism.


Sometimes referred to as : defensiveness


Repression can be conscious but is most commonly unconscious.


Advantages :


Can prevent inappropriate ID impulses from becoming behaviors.


Can prevent unpleasant thoughts from becoming conscious.


Can prevent memories of things we have done wrong from resurfacing.


Repression does not have to be total, partial memories where only the single piece of damaging information is "forgotten" is common.


What an individual represses depends upon cultural expectations and the particular development of an individuals super-ego.





When people are overwhelmed by the anxiety present within a situation, they can engage an even more severe form of memory repression :    Denial


In Denial, the individual denies that the threatening event even took place !


       In war, a mother receives word that her Son has been killed, and yet refuses to believe it, still setting the table for him, keeping his room and clothes current.


       At school, a student seeing a grade of "C" next to their name, and automatically assuming the professor made a grading error.


       Alcoholics and other Substance Abusers who refuse to admit they have a problem, despite it being very apparent to everyone around them.


Denial becomes more difficult with age, as the ego matures and understands more about the "objective reality" it must operate within.


People engaging in Denial can pay a high cost is terms of cathected psychic energy which is used to maintain the denial state.


Repression and Denial are the two main defense mechanisms which everybody uses.





In projection, anxiety is reduced by claiming another person actually has the unpleasant thoughts that you are thinking. You are attributing your own repressed thoughts to someone else.


       For example, lets say that you do not like someone.


Your mother and father always told you to treat other people well, and to be friendly to everyone.


       These thoughts from your parents become embedded in your super ego.


       You discover that you do not like this person.


       If you allow this thought to consciously surface, you will experience moral anxiety in terms of guilt feelings, because this conscious thought goes against the moral prohibitions of your super ego.


       So, instead of consciously thinking the anxiety provoking thought " I do not like this person" , this defense mechanism allows for the non-anxiety provoking thought


              "This person does not like me "






This is a post-hoc (after the fact) defense mechanism.



Rationalization allows to find logical reasons for inexcusable actions.


For Example : Cheating on Taxes


Possible Rationalization : It is better that I hold onto this money or the government will spend it on weapons of mass destruction.


Fail to get into Med school (law school)  : 


Possible Rationalization : I didn't want to pursue that career, anyways.


Rationalization helps to protect our sense of self-esteem


Rationalization is closely tied to the Self-serving Bias : The tendency to interpret success as inwardly achieved and to ascribe failure to outside factors.






Thinking about events in cold, hard, rational terms.


Separating oneself from the emotional content of an event, focusing instead on the facts.


       Intellectualization protects against anxiety by repressing the emotions connected with an event.


       For example, a wife who learns her husband is dying tries to learn all she can about the disease, prognosis, treatment options.  By doing this she can help repress the emotional onslaught of feelings of loss and anger which can accompany the death of a loved one.


       Freud believed that memories could have both conscious and unconscious aspects, and that intellectualization allows for the conscious analysis of non-anxiety provoking information about an event.






Because of partial fixations in any of the psychosexual stages of development, regression can occur when an individual is faced with high levels of stress in their life.


Regression is the giving up of mature problem solving methods in favor of child like approaches to fixing problems.


Someone with an oral fixation may increase their cigarette smoking of lollipop licking behavior when stressed at work.


Someone who is anal retentive might become more detail oriented and fastidiously neater as a result of anxiety.


       This regression represents a way of relating to the world that was formerly effective.


       Regression is a way to try to recapture some childhood satisfaction.





Displacement is the shifting of intended targets, especially when the initial target is threatening.



The classic use of displacement is in the understanding of displaced aggression.


       An individual is "dressed down" by the supervisor at their job.


       They feel anger and hostility toward their supervisor.


       Their ID, driven by aggressive impulses, would like to tear the boss's head off.


       The Ego, being reality based and very much in favor of continued paychecks, realizes that this is not a good idea and therefore does not remove boss's head.


       The person goes home, but still has this aggressive impulse.


       The Ego allows for the individual to scream at the spouse, since it feels this will not threaten future paychecks.


       The spouse, now angry and upset, displaces their anger on their child, who then becomes angry and kicks their pet dog, a further displacement of anger.