Anxiety is a natural part of life and can be incredibly helpful. Without it, people wouldn't be motivated to swerve to avoid a car accident or visit the doctor after stepping on a rusty nail. More often than not, though, anxiety comes from points of stress and frustration such as reacting to an angry boss or worrying about paying the bills. In these situations, tension causes undue psychological harm that can create a multitude of unhealthy outcomes.
Without even knowing it, people confront these anxieties every day, developing strategies to defend themselves against the uncomfortable, and sometimes debilitating toll on the brain and body. These defense mechanisms momentarily ease the symptoms of anxiety, but do nothing to address the cause. Fortunately, by recognizing these defenses, anyone can work through these problems head-on so they can put an end to anxiety-inducing issues for good.
One way people defend themselves is by projecting undesirable personal characteristics onto others. For example, someone who is excessively hostile might claim other people are the sources of hostility. Doing so eases the uncomfortable experience of being in such a state and further reduces any anxiety associated with knowing that belligerence may be socially unacceptable. The same can be true for a variety of feelings and behaviors. In a relationship, people often blame the other person for problems when it is the accuser who is the cause of the issue. A person may antagonize their friend for being controlling but may be the one who is overbearing.
A common defense especially likely to occur in close relationships, displacement involves "taking-out" anger on a person who has done nothing wrong. For instance, a husband who has had a rough day at work and has been nagged by his boss will displace this anxiety and frustration when he gets home by yelling at his wife or causing relationship issues. Sometimes this can happen between complete strangers, like when a person who is frustrated with a company's policies yells at a cashier, even though they are aware that the staffer does not dictate the situation.
Maybe the most pervasive defense mechanism is denial, i.e., to deny something by refusing to accept its existence. Denial presents itself in many ways: the recently divorced woman who claims she's not upset; the aggressive friend who shouts, "I did not get angry!"; the child who pretends his dead dog is still around. These are all ways in which people refuse to accept their reality by denying the presence of any situation that might cause anxiety. You may be familiar with denial as the first step in the five stages of grief, and this makes sense considering grief so commonly causes psychological turmoil.
Like all other defense mechanisms, denial is a normal reaction to unsettling events, but it can result in numerous problems when ignored. These issues can only be dealt with when they are acknowledged. Those in denial, though, cannot take this first step because they refuse to accept their circumstances. In doing so, they are prohibiting themselves from feeling better and are committing to a lifetime of underlying anxiety.
How to Avoid Using Defense Mechanisms
Sometimes the best way to overcome using a defense is by listening to others. The mind become so focused on the anxiety-causing events that it ignores, and therefore fails to see, how these responses shape thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Other people can sometimes provide an objective viewpoint and enable a person to view a problem from a fresh perspective by recognizing when and how they use defense mechanisms.
The adage of "putting yourself in another's shoes," although useful, requires taking an objective perspective without help or guidance from others to determine whether a defense mechanism is causing harm. People are often much better at understanding a situation when they see it from a "third-party" perspective and doing so can empower them to identify their defenses as they occur. Once they have done this, they can work toward resolving the problems that cause anxiety, either with the help of friends or a counselor.