Defense Mechanisms: What Are They?

Defense Mechanisms: What Are They?

In mental health, Recovery by Tree House Recovery

We use terms like “coping mechanism” and “defense mechanisms” a lot in recovery, and oftentimes without much context. What are we defending? Why do we defend so fiercely? And how can we let go of these mechanisms so that we can experience true vulnerability, an essential step on the path towards healing?

Defense Mechanisms 101

Defense mechanisms are actually unconscious coping strategies that our bodies and minds use to protect us against difficult feelings and invasive situations. Intellectualization, denial, repression, displacement, and reaction formation are some examples of common unhealthy defense mechanisms. There are healthy ways to cope with stress and difficult emotions. However, oftentimes defense mechanisms prevent us from truly healing. Ego-defense mechanisms are normal, as we are naturally inclined to protect ourselves from anxiety-causing emotions and situations. However, when we use them often, they become our main forms of coping and serve to keep us at a distance from the roots of our feelings.

What Are We Defending?

Sometimes we use defense mechanisms to deny our problems. For instance, we often deny our addictions before accepting them and getting help. Remaining in this state of denial shields us from the realities of our negative situation. While denial prevents momentary anxiety, it also serves to keep us at a distance from the reality of the situation. It’s only when we drop the denial and begin to face our addictive patterns that true change can begin. Or, we might act out with violent emotional outbursts or aggression when confronted about our poor behavior. This is another way for the ego to protect us against facing the difficult emotions that arise from being confronted. Acting out is a defense mechanism that takes the focus away from our past action by making a scene in the present.

Healing and Healthy Coping Mechanisms

We all need coping mechanisms. When we stop and recognize current coping mechanisms that aren’t serving us, such as denial, acting out, repression, or intellectualization, we can start to think about replacing them with coping strategies that serve us and our recovery. Examples of healthy coping mechanisms are mindfulness practices, meditation, breath-work, going for a walk or exercising, or talking it out with a friend or in therapy.


Tree House Recovery of Portland, Oregon uses cutting-edge techniques in individualized programs to help men achieve freedom from addiction. Taking a holistic, sustainable approach to the inner and outer effects of addiction ensures you or your loved one will emerge with the confidence and skills to manage your addiction independently. No one is beyond help- our Admissions Counselors are available 24/7 at (503) 850-2474