Defense Mechanisms & Substance Abuse

A natural part of normal human development involves the creation of “defense mechanisms,” or mental processes that are designed to provide psychological protection against the pain that can result from uncomfortable thoughts or fearful situations.

These defense mechanisms can serve the productive purpose of allowing us to continue to function in the face of great stress or pressure, or in the wake of tragedy or trauma. By allowing us to filter out negative thoughts, our psychological defense mechanisms give our conscious minds the “breathing room” that is necessary to focus on matters (such as work responsibilities and the development of interpersonal relationships) that demand our immediate and ongoing attention.

By their very nature, defense mechanisms distort our perceptions of reality. In “positive” situations, they may allow us to momentarily block the expression of painful emotions (such as grief) in situations when we need to function in a calm and rational manner (such as when making funeral arrangements for a loved one or when delivering a eulogy).

However, some individuals become beholden to their defense mechanisms to the point that their every interaction with the outside world is distorted by their unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns. In these cases, rather than allowing a person to function in a healthy and productive manner, the defense mechanisms serve to separate the individual from reality in a manner that puts him at considerable risk.

Common Defense Mechanisms

The extended employment of defense mechanisms inevitably leads to an unhealthy situation. For example, while it may be necessarily to temporarily escape from feelings of grief or trauma, a continued reluctance to address and express these emotions can be psychologically devastating.

The following are three common defense mechanisms that, when used in moderation, are relatively healthy ways of dealing with difficult emotions or situations:

  • Humor – Noting (and calling attention to) the inherent absurdity in a difficult situation as a means of distancing oneself from the pain at the core of the occurrence. Identification: The unconscious modeling of one’s self upon another person’s character and behavior
  • Sublimation: Re-directing negative thoughts or emotions into positive actions or behaviors. For example, channeling the pain of the accidental death of a loved one into an awareness campaign to educate others about the risks that are inherent in the activity that resulted in the death.
  • Suppression: Making the conscious decision to temporarily delay the acknowledgement of certain painful emotions in order to deal with matters of present urgency.

When these or any other defense mechanisms are employed for extended periods of time, the results can be devastating, and can lead to a host of physical and psychological consequences.

Defense Mechanisms & Addiction

Many individuals turn to substance abuse as a means of insulating themselves against physical or psychological pain – in effect engaging in destructive behaviors as a way to escape being hurt. Because the abuse of alcohol and other drugs will invariably lead to additional problems, these people often find themselves in the position of having to create another layer of psychological defenses in order to shield themselves from the effects of their behavior.

The following attitudes and expressions will likely look and sound quite familiar to anyone who has struggled with addictions, or who has known someone who has:

  • Blaming – Pointing to others as the cause of the behavior. (“I wouldn’t drink so much if you would just quit nagging me.”)
  • Denial – Refusing to acknowledge that a problem exists. (“I could quit drinking whenever I want to – I just don’t want to.”)
  • Isolation – Abandoning friends or family members in order to pursue one’s addiction without being criticized or asked to stop.
  • Minimizing – Attempting to downplay the severity of one’s dependence upon alcohol. (“I only have one or two drinks to wind down after work. It’s no big deal.”
  • Projection – Taking negative emotions one is feeling and assigning them to others, which some experts believe to be associated with paranoia.
  • Rationalization – Supplying reasons that “justify” one’s unhealthy behavior. (“Hey, I don’t want to drink so much, but it’s the only way that I can deal with the pressures at work and still keep my job.”)

Whenever a defense mechanism leads to – or is used as an excuse to continue pursuing – an unhealthy behavior, it is no longer an effective, normal, or healthy technique. Individuals who exhibit a pathological reliance on defense mechanisms need professional treatment in order to regain control over their lives.