What Is Regression In Psychology? Why It Happens And What You Can Do About It

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated November 29, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

There will be moments in life when the pressure stacks up, when we can't see any immediate solutions, and we'll turn towards the coping mechanisms we have used in the past. These coping mechanisms can help us wade through the rough waters by giving us a framework to handle stress.

What Is Regression In Psychology?

Depending on the specific coping mechanism, these behaviors are usually considered healthy if they don't come at the expense of another person or involve self-harm. However, there are also coping mechanisms that involve complete reliance on a protector or exhibiting dangerous behavior during the abuse. A coping mechanism is unhealthy if it comes at the expense of another person or if it causes harm to you.

Regression in psychology is a coping mechanism we exhibit during those stressful moments in our lives. These coping mechanisms come in the form of behavior during our childhood or earlier stages in our development. In the extremes, this could be sucking our thumbs, wetting the bed, clinging onto former toys, etc., as we did when we were children. Nearly everyone eventually exhibits some form of regression at some point in time, but to a milder degree.

Whether it's biting your nails like you did when you were younger or throwing temper tantrums, the behavior can be subtle during adulthood. When someone is showing signs of regression, they'll generally be unaware of its effects. They'll mostly see the signs as immature, but not in the form of regression to "safer" times during early development.

Sigmund Freud, also known as the "Father of Psychology," states that individuals who revert to earlier points in childhood do so to feel more nurtured or secure.

Freud believed that these reverted moments are points in our developmental stage where we are stuck and fixated. When solving our problems during adulthood, Freud thinks that we have two options: to solve the problem as an adult or handle them through regression.

Regression isn't just limited to adults, though.

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Regression is the most prevalent during childhood and is also caused by stress and trauma. Children can grow up sucking their thumb, stop eventually, and then pick the habit up once again during a later stage of childhood, often during a stressful or turbulent time in their life, like adjusting to a new baby brother or sister or moving to a new house. This type of regression is more common than adult regression.

During childhood, we've yet to develop effective ways to solve the problems we face. We tend to deal with these stressors using prior experience to soothe the situation. Regression during childhood is not always indicative of mental illness and is often seen as a normal response to stress. In many cases, children do not stay in a state of regression forever but eventually continue to develop past that stage.

Like with any coping mechanism, we usually exhibit behavior during regression that will ease the stress we immediately face to better understand it. After the initial wave of anxiety has passed, we are often able to problem solve. Without such a cycle, we could be thinking through emotions and solving with inflamed thinking. This could pave the way to rash thinking or destructive behavior.

What You Can Do About Regression In Psychology

Regression can be an effective means to deal with stress until it's time to use some form of problem-solving.

Regressing in childhood is usually normal as there will rarely be moments when a child learns to act on intent.

In adulthood, there will be chances to use behavior we've learned intentionally. Instead of relying on childlike qualities to soothe the pains of agitation, we can develop objective ways of handling stress.

Meditation

Meditation has been a practice to better handle stress and anxiety for thousands of years. Having the benefit of time, meditations have become varied and more specific. There is meditation to handle trauma. There are meditations to manage the effects of insomnia. Whatever stressors you may be facing, there will most likely be a particular meditation that combats it.

During meditation, you'll control your posture and your breathing. Using these anchors inside your body, you'll slowly build a more profound awareness of consciousness and yourself.

Meditation is particularly useful as a means to set time aside for ourselves.

Life, work, friends, and family can all be demanding a portion of our time. It can be tough to carve simple moments out of our days to soothe our problems. Meditation sets the practice of bringing more awareness towards ourselves and the stressors affecting us.

There are multiple resources to start your practice of meditation. The Headspace app is a great beginner's introduction to meditation without the substantial commitment of classes or time.

Journaling

Writing, in general, is how we keep our minds sharp. Writing is also a practice in history. The first writing was to document information several thousand years ago. Now, writing has become a profession in itself.

Writing can be a way to solve almost any task. Project management, problem-solving, planning, etc., but writing is also an effective way to discover more about ourselves.

Human attention usually spans ten to twenty minutes. Thinking about any said problem will quickly be distracted by another with the technology of the modern world.

Writing as intended during earlier times is a great way to document a thinking process for later reflection. Writing down our traumas is considered a healthy and effective means of coping. Merely writing the details of such events can reduce body tension and restore the focus on solving problems.

The wonderful nature of writing is that there is no one way to do any form of writing. This includes journaling your own unique life. Whatever route you choose, having the words on paper gives you a resource to reflect on later in life, and a means to solve problems now.

We can better understand our stress to hopefully find solutions but also to understand the insignificance of them.

Yoga

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It's said that if the positive effects of exercise were consolidated into a pill, you'd have a miracle pill in your hands. Combining brief exercise, meditation practices, and stretching, you could have one of the best means of managing stress or anxiety.

Yoga is another age-old practice that has found its way into more western culture. This practice falls in the same vein as paying attention to yourself. With meditation, there is acute attention to your posture and your mind. With yoga, there is attention towards each element inside your body.

Fortunately, there are yoga practices that can fit almost any lifestyle you want. There are yoga practices for those looking for vigorous workouts, and there are practices for those who only have brief amounts of time. Whichever you choose, yoga can be a great way to build a more effective means of handling the stress that could cause you to regress.

Conclusion

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Regression in psychology can be a tricky subject to discuss as the behavior we all exhibit during childhood won't be a comical thumb sucking or wetting the bed. The effects of regression can be much more subtle. Chewing nails or pulling out hair can be a simple coping method that is also an example of regression.

Coping mechanisms are typically considered healthy when they don't come at the expense and don't involve self-harm. Chewing your hair may be a reverted behavior, but if it helps you handle stress and the behavior is at least self-aware, then the habit is not especially harmful. However, it's not especially constructive, and other coping skills could positively serve you.

Regression in psychology has its roots in stress. Whenever we feel the negative effects of being unable to solve the problems in our lives, we tend to use a coping mechanism to soothe the feelings so that we can then problem solve. Although stress is not the only cause of regression, it's usually the most common one.

Thankfully, there are many effective ways of handling stress as an adult.

For example, meditation is a great practice that requires nothing more than your body itself. Building an awareness of the agitation you're currently dealing with and letting it go can be much more useful than chewing your nails. Controlling your breath, maintaining good posture, and being aware of the current moment is all you have to do. Try envisioning your thoughts as clouds that come and go across the sky that is your mind. There are also many guided meditation options available online and through apps.

Journaling is a wonderful means to solve problems better or heal past traumas. By putting pencil to paper, we are actualizing the thoughts that we may have. Having these thoughts down on paper can relieve much of the tension from keeping them inside your head. By releasing these thoughts, not only are you freeing up precious space in your brain, but you're forming a new coping mechanism.

Last but not least, yoga is another excellent way to manage stress and bring more peace into your life. Exercise, in general, can be a stress buster. A simple practice of 20 minutes or less can be all the time you need to experience the full benefits of yoga. This practice combines light exercise, meditation, stretching, and deep, controlled breathing, giving you more benefits of each of the separate components.

Using the techniques we've mentioned can be a great start to better handle the stress we find ourselves reacting to with regression. As we move through adulthood, several pressures of life build on top of each other, which can cause life to feel a bit daunting at times.

During these moments, it's not abnormal to regress. But as Freud said, we can choose to solve our problems as adults or handle them using regression. Let's build better habits and a healthier coping mechanism to handle any problem that may come our way. Remember, there is always help available, and ReGain is a wonderful place to start!

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