We are starting a blog series that talks about defense mechanisms, or the ways in which we try to protect ourselves from fear or pain. However, before we dive into the different defense mechanisms, it is important to look at how we get there in the first place.
This is where the nervous system comes in. Our nervous system is constantly scanning our environment for threats. These threats can be internal or external, real or perceived. When we (either consciously or unconsciously) perceive a threat, our nervous system kicks in and can send us in to a sympathetic nervous system response.
When we move into a sympathetic nervous system response (often called fight/flight), we either move toward the threat (fight) or try to move away from the threat (flight).
When our threats were lions or bears charging us, fight/flight looked like either physically fighting the animal or running away. Today, however, our threats tend to be a little less tangible and therefore our responses a little less externally obvious as well.
When we move into a flight response we tend to experience things like worry, anxiety, fear, and panic. When we move into a fight response, it tends to look like rage, anger, irritation, frustration, and defensiveness.
As PolyVagal expert Deb Dana says, “We are always moving toward either connection or protection.” When our nervous system shifts into the sympathetic response, we are looking to protect. When we are trying to protect ourselves, we begin to see other people or circumstances as our enemies and feel the need to defend.
This is where our defense mechanisms come in. We tend to subconsciously move to defend ourselves in the ways that we have seen modeled or the ways that have worked for us in the past. These defenses can be either very helpful/adaptive mechanisms or potentially very problematic ones.
So why is this important?
As we move into reflecting on our own defense mechanisms, it is important to understand the reason they are happening in the first place and to remember that the people or circumstances that may seem like the enemy at the time, are often actually on your same team.
So next time you notice yourself moving into one of your defense mechanisms, pause and see if you can reflect on what the perceived threat might be?
The more time we can take to pause and address our behaviors with curiosity and understanding, the more control we can feel over them.
**The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).
Dana, D. (2018). The polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation.