Defense mechanisms are largely unconscious mechanisms which are activated in times of anxiety, stress and distress without any choice or conscious intentionality. Defense mechanisms can be regarded as survival instruments (Fine, 1988). Defense mechanisms are a necessary tool of protection and in moderate use contribute to successful adaptation (Cramer, 2008). Defense mechanisms are a part of normal functioning but they can be considered as pathological under the following conditions: The defenses used are age inappropriate; have a high intensity; the continuous and inappropriate usage of defenses even when uncalled for; the quantity exceeds the quality (Cramer, 1998). Over-reliance on defenses can lead to major negative consequences: The suppression of feelings; development of psychological and physical symptoms caused by the repressed feelings; damage to the self and increased dependency on habits and fantasy, which impair one’s functioning; lack of honesty and intimacy in relationships. Generally speaking, excessive use of defense mechanisms is associated with Axis I and II psychopathology (Watson, 2002)
Coping, on the other hand, are conscious strategies that are chosen in calm emotional states (Haan, 1977). In situations in which no stress is perceived, the ego will be more flexible, purposeful and will permit emotional expression. Coping enable the individual to attain realistic goals by using available resources and past experiences while acting within society’s rules of conduct. Unlike defense mechanisms, which are unconscious processes, coping methods are conscious processes. One must realize that in reality, sometime a person will exhibit rational coping simultaneously with unconscious defenses.
Coping mechanisms are often confused and interchanged with defense mechanisms due to their similarities. Both processes are activated in times of adversity. Defense mechanisms and coping strategies reduce arousal of negative emotions. Furthermore, both processes aim at achieving adaptation only the means to the end differ. Defenses help the individual by distorting reality and coping strategies attempt at solving the problem, thus changing the reality (Cramer, 1998). Miceli and Castelfranchi (2001) support this notion and add that coping behaviors involve conscious modification of cognitive and emotional appraisals, which eventually modify the reactions to the stressful event rather than distort the perception of the event. The individual has full control of the coping strategies used (Cramer, 2000). The individual can choose to stop a certain coping style and choose another strategy. A choice of a certain coping strategy implies intent and full awareness of the operation. Defense mechanisms, on the other hand, operate outside consciousness and awareness of the individual. One cannot intentionally choose to use another defense mechanism.
Coping thus involves flexibility and defenses are more rigid, distort logistics, are unstoppable and their goal is to reduce anxiety not to solve the source of the anxiety (Haan, 1977). The choice of coping mechanisms is perceived more as dependent on timing, situational and personality factors. Different situations lead after all to different coping strategies. Defense mechanisms are more stable and habitual. Hentschel et al. (2004) summarize the difference by referring to the questions “how” and “what”. Defense mechanisms, according to the authors, deal with “what” parts of the distressing event should be distorted, while coping deals with “how” the event should be managed. In other words, which behavior needs to be exhibited, that will provide adaptation and feelings of control over the distressing situation.
The idea whether defense mechanisms produce adaptive and functional behaviors is still controversial. In the long term, defense mechanisms do contribute to the development of severe pathology, yet the fact that they seem to help the individual to cope in a short term should not be ignored nor dismissed. Defenses are efficient mechanisms that help dealing with threatening and at times traumatic stressors. Pathology probably does not originate from the actual use of defense mechanisms; it is caused by a continuous reliance on defenses, instead of actually attempting to solve the core problems that cause their necessity in the first place.
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Cramer, P. (1998). Coping and defense mechanism: what is the difference? Journal of Personality, 66, 6, 919-935.
Cramer, P. (2000). Defense mechanism in psychology today. American Psychologist, 6, 637-646.
Cramer, P. (2008). Seven Pillars of defense mechanism theory. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2008, 2, 1963-1981.
Fine, R. (1988). Troubled men: The psychology, emotional, conflicts and therapy of men. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Haan, N. (1977). Coping and defending. New York: Academic press.
Hentschel, U., Smith, G., Draguns, J. G., & Ehlers, W. (2004). Defense mechanisms. Theoretical, research and clinical perspectives. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2001). Further distinctions between coping and defense mechanism. Journal of Personality, 69, 285-296.
Watson, D.C. (2002). Predicting psychiatric symptomatology with the Defense Style Questionnaire-40. International Journal of Stress Management, 9, 275-287.