Coping Strategies and Defense Mechanisms at Work

Coping Strategies and Defense Mechanisms

When I was traveling with a good friend this week I had a chance to witness the way my friend handled a number of very stressful situations. Afterward, I had an opportunity to debrief her reactions and see how well I understood them. We flew to Canada to meet with an agent concerning a book we are writing about “Women and Testosterone Deprivation.” Because we have invested a lot of time and energy in writing this book, we were very anxious to meet with this agent who wants to represent us. We had a late afternoon appointment with him on the Friday before a Canadian holiday weekend.

Our itinerary required us to change planes twice on the way to Toronto. As luck would have it, we were delayed several times. It was the weekend that Canada celebrates its Thanksgiving and the security workers (Canada’s TSA) were conducting a work slow down which they called “Working to the Rule.” The workers were following every rule to the letter. Some of the workers at the airport were courteous to us, but many were brusque, terse, and “powerful.” This all added to our anxiety. When we finally arrived, we learned that it was too late make our appointment to meet with our potential agent at his office. We gladly agreed to meet him for dinner, which allowed our third team member, flying in from North Carolina, to meet with us as well. Fortunately, plan B worked out. The dinner and the meeting went well. Outcomes were positive. The next morning our travel continued to be challenging. We received messages from our airline, and our colleague, that delays were inevitable and that we should arrive at the airport early and prepared. We struggled with printing our boarding passes at the hotel, the kiosks at the airport were not working, and then stood in line with angry, frustrated travelers for almost three hours before finally boarding our plane.
This was, as you can imagine, all quite stressful. There is absolutely no fun in flying anymore. The sense of adventure and joy in airline travel is gone. The trips are long, stressful, and crowded with frustrated, frightened people being handled by angry, authoritarian bureaucratic workers.

But, complaining about the woes of post 9/11 airline travel has been the subject of many other writings. The point of telling you about all of this is to talk about my friend and her coping strategies through repeated cycles of intense stress. When she and I debriefed, we talked about her perception of her strategies and about my interpretation of them. My friend is a self-confessed obsessive compulsive, with control issues. I don’t find her to be that way, but she describes herself in those terms. My friend said the sense of being not in control, but being potentially impacted by the outcomes, has always been difficult for her to cope with.
As children, my friend and I both grew up in emotionally volatile and aggressive homes. We learned to watch our parents and to read the “weather” signals. Was a storm coming in? Were they pleased or displeased with us, and how could we manipulate the situation so that we could, at least, be safe and at most get approval? These are probably questions that all children learn to ask. In violent homes they are, more importantly, survival skills. One of the earliest things a child in a traumatic home learns to do is not do the wrong thing. We usually learn that by trial and error. We do something “wrong” and are harshly punished for it. So we learn first, do no wrong. Then we try to find out what to do to be on the side of the angels. How do we get approval? How can we make mom smile? What will cause Dad to pat us on the head?

Those children who emotionally survive learn how not to do things that make the situation worse. If I got angry at some situation at home as a child the last thing I would ever do was throw a tantrum. I could not safely show that I was angry, that would be very dangerous for me. I could not scream, curse, break things, hit someone, or act out my anger in any form that resembled anger. I was simply not allowed to be angry (unless of course I was trying to be in the “Amen Corner” about some issue my Dad was angry about!) I was not allowed to feel anger and I was not willing to act out in some negative way that would increase my danger, or worsen my consequences. My friend said she was raised in much the same way. Consequently, if you can’t go negative you learn more positive alternatives.

All children learn how cope by doing what works for them by using defense mechanisms. These defense mechanisms come in three different categories: flight, aggression, and compromise reactions. These are classic Freudian terms. Each level of defense is hierarchical both within the level and among the levels. Freud’s system is based on avoiding or reducing anxiety. The hierarchy is based on the amount of energy and intellectual sophistication that is required in order to contain and reduce the anxiety that the mechanism is defending against. Two factors come into play when we experience anxiety. The first is how much anxiety does the situation engender? Is it at a high level (traumatic level) or is it minor enough to be easily compartmentalized? The second factor is the level of adaptive sophistication the individual has acquired.

My friend has a very high level of adaptive sophistication. She is a surgeon and had to learn early on how to compartmentalize and contain her anxieties. She had to stay in the compartment of the task at hand so her patients would not die. These are very sophisticated skills that can be generalized to most life situations and stressors. She just has to remember to use them in more mundane situations!

What happens when anxiety stimuli occur is that our unconscious automatically applies a specific defensive response and puts it in play. It will always choose the least expensive response that it thinks will work for the situation. If the response does not work, and the anxiety continues or escalates, another, more costly defense steps up to try. When we reach a level of response that works, the anxiety reduces and the situation passes. If the waves of stimuli come too fast or in such increasing intensity that they override this system, then we regress to what are called primitive defenses. These are skills we learned as children that helped us survive our sense of powerlessness and fear. When our system overloads we always revert to this globalized defense mechanism. Everyone’s is different and is based on what they learned in childhood. Mine is to numb out and focus on the immediate task and move to the next step without feeling, or falling apart. I am one of those people who are good in a crisis, but may fall apart when everything is actually over. My friend’s globalized skill is to problem-solve. She is capable of taking a deep breath and re-examining the data saying, “Well, that didn’t work, let’s try this.” She keeps reloading strategies until she finds one that works. Later there is often a period of exhaustion and vulnerability, but not until it is safe and the problem is contained. These are very advanced skills in terms of defense mechanisms.

The question for the average person then becomes to identify what their skill sets are and to learn more adaptive ones if they need to. This is a place where therapy can be helpful. If you are in therapy you can have a safe place to put all your cards on the table and examine them. You can also be guided in the acquisition and implementation of new, more functional skills. If you always do what you have always done, then you will always get what you have always gotten! In other words, when clients say: “Why is this always happening to me?” or “Why is this happening again?” The answer is because you have not learned what you need to do to make changes. Change requires action, not just understanding. You must experiment with new behaviors and then evaluate whether or not they are obtaining the results you want. This is the skill my friend has developed so successfully. She kept problem solving and adapting until the situation was contained and the anxiety was no longer an issue.

What are your coping strategies? When you regress to your globalized defense what is it? Do you eat? Do you exercise? Do you read or tell jokes? Do you throw a tantrum? Do you problem solve? It might be interesting to know.

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2 Responses to Coping Strategies and Defense Mechanisms at Work

  1. Tara says:

    Hello Brett,

    I came across your article by accident….or maybe it was a stroke of luck? I just wanted you to know that this article opened my eyes to a world I ran away from years ago at the age of 17. I have always thought of myself as the ‘control freak’, a bit compulsive at times, and probably overbearing. However, your article has inspired me to seek counseling. I am now 36 years old, and although I have been able to recognize my “issues” I’ve taken little action to change them. Sad, but true. Anyway, thank you for sharing your story and your friends story. It’s just nice to know I am not alone.

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