Human behavior is incredibly complex and nuanced. While untangling the way we behave is an art, there are common threads to the ways we respond to events that tie into the emotions that come afterward. Whether we realize it or not, these behaviors can be positive or negative.

One term to help explain behavior that is now in widespread usage is “coping.” Coping is a person’s way of managing and handling stress. Coping, like all behavior, can be productive or counterproductive, helping us lead the lives we aim for, or inhibiting us from doing so.

In this article, we’ll explain how the way we cope with the world creates patterns, and how those patterns lead to healthy or unhealthy defense mechanisms. Once you know your style of coping, you’ll feel empowered to change unhealthy behaviors.

Understanding defense mechanisms

The patterns we create to cope with our environment are often called mechanisms, or coping strategies. From a young age, we develop systems of interacting with the world around us, and those systems tend to take root and evolve as we grow older.

The patterns of coping that we develop come from a wide range of influences, from our genetic predispositions, personality factors, family modeling, neurological capabilities and the society around us. There is significant variance in how individuals cope, even between those who lead similar lives (like siblings or spouses, for example).

Many people develop healthy coping skills growing up and apply them throughout life. For example, a child who feels stressed before a test at school may develop a healthy coping mechanism for studying in the future. Most adults have a mixture of healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Why do coping mechanisms matter

The theory of coping mechanisms or defense mechanisms stems from famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s structural theory of mind. In his work, Freud attempted to explain how the brain works to protect an individual from outside threats. According to his work, our brains are constantly operating in an effort to reduce stress and maintain mental stability.

Thus, defense mechanisms are the brain’s endeavors to minimize harm, avoid future distress and manage current emotional discomfort. Different defense mechanisms are more efficacious than others, but all are aimed at creating the stability we crave. At the end of the day, our brains are simply working to give us the peace, rest and fulfillment we crave.

Unhealthy defense mechanisms can lead to broken relationships, difficulty working with others, emotional instability, insecurity, stress, anxiety and depression. Identifying your own patterns of negative coping behavior and adapting your behavior into more productive systems is a lengthy process, but not impossible.

Unhealthy defense mechanisms

In our efforts to obtain mental stability, we often create patterns of behavior that are less than helpful. These patterns often become ingrained, generally without us noticing the harm they create. Freud identified numerous unhealthy defense mechanisms that include the following behaviors.


Displacement is the behavior in which a person reacts toward someone who is uninvolved in the situation. For example, taking work stress out on your husband may be less intimidating, but wrongly directed.


Refusing to admit the reality of a situation is an act of denial. For example, a person may struggle to accept that her child has a learning disability and continue daily life avoiding the reality of the educational difficulty.


These unhealthy defense mechanisms are common in survivors of trauma. Repression involves unconsciously avoiding harmful information or memories. This defense mechanism requires therapy, as an individual does not intentionally repress these thoughts.


Unlike repression, suppression is the act of consciously or actively avoiding negative thoughts or memories. A person may recognize the havoc alcohol abuse has caused in his life, but keep himself busy to refrain from thinking about the consequences of his behavior.


Projection is an unhealthy defense mechanism in which a person will extend feeling about himself to another. For example, disappointment in a person’s own career could lead to extreme criticism of a sibling’s life choices.


A person who refuses to engage emotionally and only responds intellectually may be coping in a negative way. While much of this is tied into personality, refusing to confront emotions that are present is unproductive behavior.


Making excuses and justifying behavior is a common unhealthy defense mechanism.


This behavior involves returning to adolescent experiences to manage stress. An adult may find that watching a childish show or snuggling a stuffed animal is soothing, and therefore avoid confronting or managing a difficult situation.

Reaction formation

Hiding or altering emotions and replacing them with the opposite expected reaction occurs with reaction formation. People tend to feel agency when able to choose their reaction, but a reaction that does not match the situation could be an attempt to escape from difficulties.

Healthy defense mechanisms

There are plenty of unhealthy defense mechanisms and a wide variety of ways to express them. These patterns of coping behaviors can worsen over time, or they can be identified and replaced with useful and productive behaviors.


Freud termed productive coping as “sublimation.” This behavior occurs when individuals react to negative events in a productive and acceptable manner. Sublimination involves self-awareness, emotional regulation, social skills, patience and personal growth. It’s hard to overcome difficult circumstances, but all unhealthy defense mechanisms can be rewritten.

Rewriting defense mechanisms

Professional treatment can help you undo patterns of the past and rewrite your future. Whether you struggle with a mental health disorder or substance addiction, your methods of coping can be reversed so you can live the free and happy life you want. Call Real Recovery today to break out of old patterns of coping.