What Is Regression in Psychology?

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In psychology, regression is a defense mechanism in which an individual copes with stressful or anxiety-provoking relationships or situations by retreating to an earlier developmental stage.

Regression may be seen at any stage of development in both adults and children when someone behaves in a way that's immature or inappropriate for their age. For example, an older adult who is hospitalized after being diagnosed with a medical issue may deal with their circumstances by curling up in the fetal position and clutching a stuffed animal.

On the other hand, a young child whose parents just brought home their baby sibling may deal with the insecurity of no longer being an only child by reverting to behavior they'd outgrown, such as wetting the bed or sucking their thumb.

This article details the history of this concept and explains how manifests in children and adults. It also discusses how you can overcome regression.

History of Regression

Regression and other defense mechanisms were proposed by Sigmund Freud in the 19th century as part of his psychoanalytic theory. His ideas about defense mechanisms, including regression, were later expanded on by his daughter Anna Freud.

Defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies used to protect the ego from stress, fear, or trauma. According to Anna Freud, regression is an immature defense mechanism because the individual who regresses cannot cope in a more constructive, age-appropriate way.

Fixation and Regression

In Freud's conception, the defense mechanism of regression is closely tied to his stages of psychosexual development. Freud's theory specifies several stages children go through from infancy through adolescence but especially focuses on development between birth and the age of six.

Stages during this time include the oral, anal, and phallic stages, and everyone goes through them. As a result, a person can become preoccupied with a particular stage regardless of how much they grow beyond it, which Freud called "fixation."

Such fixations can manifest themselves in behavior that's indicative of a given stage. For example, if a person is fixated in the oral stage, they may suck on a pen while they're working or smoke, eat, or drink in excess. Similarly, fixation on the anal stage may manifest itself in a preoccupation with keeping things tidy.

Other people, however, may not show any signs of fixation until something happens in their lives that cause stress or trauma. It is only at this point when the defense mechanism of regression will be used to shield their ego, leading them to revert to an earlier stage.

For example, someone going through a tough breakup who typically isn't fixated at the oral stage may suddenly find eating brings them comfort. In these cases, regression is based on the strength of the fixation. If the person's fixation on an earlier stage is relatively weak, a major stressor would be needed to lead them to regress; on the other hand, if the person's fixation is strong, even a minor stressor could result in regression.

Regression in Children

Young children develop new skills and abilities rapidly, however, regression is also a common part of their development. In particular, it is normal and even helpful for a child to regress slightly after mastering something new or adjusting to a new situation like attending daycare or preschool for the first time.

Regression is often a product of being overwhelmed by the new developmental milestone they've reached and the fact that it takes them out of a previously established comfort zone.

For instance, a child who has recently learned to feed himself may suddenly seem unable to do so and revert to relying on his caregivers to feed him. Or the first day a child is dropped off at pre-school they may cry and cling to her parent's leg even though she hasn't exhibited this kind of behavior in months.

While regression can happen at any point in childhood, toddlers and preschoolers are especially prone to it.

Parents and caregivers can help their children through periods of regression by being reassuring and supportive. Regression is a way for children to express their feelings about their development, so caregivers shouldn't ignore their behavior. However, they should set limits by suggesting alternative ways of coping.

For example, if a child has a temper tantrum every time he's dropped off at school, a caregiver might remind him of the fun he had last time he went and reassure him that they will be there to pick him up as soon as the school day is over.

While regression throughout childhood is normal and usually brief, if it lasts longer than a few weeks, there might be cause for concern. If a single instance of regression continues beyond two to three weeks, it could be worth checking in with the child's doctor to make sure something else isn't going on that's holding back their developmental progress.

Regression in Adults

Like children, adults sometimes regress, often as a temporary response to a traumatic or anxiety-provoking situation. For example, a person stuck in traffic may experience road rage, the kind of tantrum they'd never have in their everyday life but helps them cope with the stress of driving.

Similarly, a college freshman who is about to take their first test may stay up all night video chatting with their best friend as they did in high school as a way to calm their nerves. In these instances, the individual is regressing to a stage in their development when they felt safer and more secure, or when a caregiver could rescue them from their insecurities.

Studies have shown that regression generally decreases throughout adulthood. A longitudinal study with European-Americans showed that between adolescence and the age of 65, use of the defense mechanism of regression decreased. However, after 65, regression increased, which the researchers attributed to the challenges of maintaining adaptive coping strategies in older adulthood.

Similarly, a cross-sectional study comparing younger, primarily White adults with the average age of about 20 years old and older, primarily White adults with the average age of about 71 years old found that the younger adults tended to use regression more than older adults. The researchers speculated that this difference may be the result of immature regressive behaviors being more acceptable for younger adults while seeming maladaptive and pathological in older adults.

How to Overcome Regression 

While regression is often a temporary response to stress that won't lead to larger issues, in many cases the individual may be unaware their behavior is regressive, even though to the outside observer the immaturity of their actions may be quite obvious.

Often telling an adult that their behavior is uncharacteristically childish or age-inappropriate will enable them to recognize what they're doing and determine how to respond to whatever is causing them distress in a more productive way.

On the other hand, regression can also be a sign of larger issues. A reliance on regression can be a sign of poor coping skills that may require the help of a counselor or therapist to work through. If you notice you have trouble dealing constructively with the stress of everyday life and tend to act helpless or immature in the face of problems, this may be a sign that you need to work with a professional to improve your coping skills.

Regression may also be a sign of major physical or psychological problems like catatonia, delirium, psychotic disorders, major depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorders, dementia, or substance abuse disorders.

If there's a concern that a person's regression is the sign of a larger difficulty, a medical doctor or mental health professional should be consulted. They will diagnose the issue and work with the patient or their loved ones to come up with a plan to manage it. Regression is a symptom of these issues, so the goal would be to treat the underlying disorder, naturally leading to the individual exhibiting less or even completely overcoming regression.

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