What Is Regression? Psychology, Definition, And Applications For Your Relationship

Updated March 30, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Have you experienced backward movement in your personality or in the personality of someone you love? Perhaps a situation pushed you to behave as though you were living ten years prior, or your significant other has started acting incredibly childish. If so, you may be experiencing or witnessing regression.

Learn More About How To Navigate Regression

What is regression? Simply put, regression in a psychological sense means to revert to previous habits, actions, or personality traits. When an individual begins to behave in the same way they did at the age of five or even in high school, regression is a likely cause. To better understand regression and its meaning, it is important to analyze the psychology behind it, its true definition, and how it might apply to your relationship.

If you or someone you love might be experiencing regression, it can be incredibly helpful to seek a professional’s guidance. There are several ways in which therapy and other forms of assistance can help the situation. Learning about psychology related to regression is a good starting point in seeking help.

The Psychology Of Regression

Sigmund Freud is a name known for many theories in psychology. He claimed that regression was a defense mechanism in which the brain reverted to an earlier behavior that made the individual feel safe. This behavior can materialize in just about any form. For some people, regression means sleeping with a beloved stuffed animal, thumb sucking, bed-wetting, or throwing temper tantrums. Depending on the situation, a regression can be minor or disruptive and is often related to stress levels.

On a psychological level, stress makes an impact that is hard to ignore. It can cause severe anxiety, depression or a depressive state, or even mental cloudiness and confusion. Since stress can cause these problems, it makes sense that regression is next on the list. A combination of the psychological effects of stress and stress itself can surely cause damage to both the mind and body.

Though stress is the most common cause of regression, the condition is most common in children. Children experience stress as anyone else might; when that stress causes regression, there are a few ways the child can be affected. The majority of children are done having daily temper tantrums by the time they turn four years old. When these fits are still a regular occurrence in older children, it can be a sign of regression.

Temper tantrums in adults can be a clear indicator of regression. Typically, adults that experienced this condition also experienced it as a child. While this is not always the case, it is the most prevalent. Also, while the stress of life is a major cause for regression in adults who have experienced it prior and not, several psychological disorders and conditions can contribute to it.

Studies have proven that regression often is confused with other psychological problems such as catatonia, the inability to cope, dementia, substance abuse, and personality disorders. While these issues are just a small number of the psychological concerns that might be confused with regression, they are important to know and grasp. Psychological problems are not to be ignored nor treated without care.

The movies might make catatonia seem like a patient does nothing but stare into space; this is not exactly true. While this can be a sign of a catatonic patient, some individuals experience other symptoms. These possible symptoms include grimacing, copying another’s behavior, or agitation. What do these aspects of catatonia have to do with regression?

Each of these actions can be attributed to previous behavior. Grimacing might be seen as childish or the actions of an infant. Copying someone else is usually a game played by children. Agitation is commonly the beginning of a temper tantrum. Confusing catatonia with regression could easily lead to further problems in treatment. This is the same for each of the aforementioned incorrect diagnoses. If wrongfully diagnosed, treatment for the issue will be far more complicated and likely ineffective.

Treatment for regression can be any variety of options, depending on the patient and their specific case. There are medicinal and behavioral treatments available that might help patients with regression. In many cases, medicine is not necessary for minor regression. However, in more difficult situations, a medicinal approach might be best. Antidepressants and antipsychotics are common prescriptions utilized in preventing regression. Each type is prescribed based on the patient’s medical history and the cause of the regression.

Behavioral treatment often starts with therapy. Further needs are then determined based on the patient and their needs. Empathizing with the situation causing the regression or issues is often the best start. Sometimes a therapist feels the need to include all people involved in the patient’s care to provide the best assistance possible. Therapy can help immensely, but other areas of the patient’s life must have guidance as well.

Defining the problem areas of the patient’s life and what is needed to treat their regression is imperative in helping them adapt. To do that, it is best to understand exactly what regression starts with in general. It is only then that the proper psychological treatment can be applied.

Defining Regression In All Forms

Google defines regression as “a return to a former or a less developed state.” On the other hand, Merriam Webster defines it as “a trend or shift toward a lower or less perfect state.” Although these definitions apply to psychology and mental health, it is also present in other subjects. For example, in the business and statistics world, regression is the relationship between two variables. Analysis of all definitions allows for further understanding of the topic as a whole.

The first definition is about regressing childhood behaviors. Using the term less-developed indicates that an adult (or teen) moves back to their previous actions and comforts. It refers to the brain is less developed than it is currently. The definition leaves the condition open to several behaviors and actions.

The second definition from Merriam Webster uses the term less perfect. This might indicate that it is not necessarily a childhood behavior that the patient is performing but something they had previously improved upon. Perhaps a bad habit was stopped but has since started once again. It might be nail-biting, smoking, or chewing on a pen. Whatever the behavior is, it does not have to be an action done only in childhood. The regression includes several previous behaviors.

The final definition is the statistics and business version. You may be wondering what this definition has to do with psychological regression. Imagine the variables mentioned in the definition of the statistics. Imagine the possible variables as psychological aspects like work stress, family and relationships, and depression. The relationship between these variables and others, like the specific regression behaviors, when they occur, and the severity, can help determine the exact cause and how to treat the condition.

The definition that applies to you or your loved one’s regression can help treat it and determine how it might apply to your relationship. Are changes needed? What can be done to help our significant other experiencing regression? Knowing the answers to these questions can be a big help in developing a healthy relationship.

How Regression Applies To Your Relationship

It can be confusing for those in a relationship to experience regression firsthand or witness it in a significant other. Imagine your loved one suddenly acting out or as though they were a child. This can cause some complications in a relationship. When your partner is suddenly throwing temper tantrums that are uncharacteristic of them, has picked up a former bad habit, or is wetting the bed, the relationship can face more challenges than it was prepared for.

Experiencing such drastic changes in a relationship can feel as though your significant other is no longer themselves. It is often difficult to remain in a relationship when the person you know is no longer acting like the person you love and care for. If regression is altering your relationship, couples counseling might be a way for you to work on your relationship, yourself, and your loved one’s regression. It may be necessary for the individual experiencing a regression also to have solo therapy sessions.

Therapy is a common and helpful tool in treating several relationships and individual problems and concerns. Seeking help is the best way to make it through psychological challenges in the best headspace. While there is no magic cure for these kinds of issues, putting in the effort and work to stay together or to be better is key.

If regression is affecting you or your relationship, do not hesitate to seek professional help. The earlier help is brought in, the better the chance you have at succeeding in the relationship. However, the most important aspect of treating regression is focusing on the condition first. Placing focus on the relationship and failing to work on oneself can be a problem in itself. A quality therapist can guide you or your loved one on the proper treatment schedule.

What Is An Example Of Regression In Psychology?

Learn More About How To Navigate Regression

When talking about regression psychology, regressive behavior is a condition of medical neurologic or psychiatric characteristics. Patients who display regressive behaviors typically go back to their childhood and mimic a similar behavior to a young child. This is essentially the psychology definition. They may wet the bed, talk like a babbling baby, crawl on the ground, or curl up in the corner and rock back and forth while crying. Regression in adults is common when a child was abused. The regression behaviors are a reaction to stimuli that become manifestations of regression. Patients with regressive patterns need psychological strategies to help them manage their past. They also need to learn how to manage regression behavior. Regression can signify a serious mental health condition from a psychology definition and applications perspective.

Some people with significant psychiatric programs become hospitalized patients with regressive tendencies. This is most commonly seen when psychological strategies are not working and the patient exhibits agitation and regressive harm to others.

What Causes Psychological Regression?

Patients with regressive behavior have psychotic disorders. Some of these abnormal psychology issues stem from physical, mental, or sexual abuse as a child. However, not all patients who have common regressive behaviors are abuse victims.

Some patients with regression behaviors do so to gain attention. Some of these reasons include:

  • A change at home

  • Parental divorce

  • A recent death in the family or death of a close friend

  • A new sibling

  • Serious illness of the child or a family person

  • Change in the child’s routine

When a patient resorts to regression, it is because they crave attention and care. In young children are at a psychological stage of adaptation and processing new situations. An adult can be stressed out by a new baby in the family, moving to a new house, or divorce; children do not typically understand why these things are happening to them. They use regression to address the need for others to slow down and pay attention to their needs; they need to understand and know that they are still loved.

What Is Regression Behavior?

According to Sigmund Freud, who believed that regression was a real condition, the definition psychology regression is a temporary or long-term reversion of an earlier stage of development. This change is typically to avoid handling unacceptable impulses and deal with a more adaptive change. While the adaptation may not seem to make sense to those who are not going through the regression process.

Regression psychology includes the patient adopting a more childish mannerism. They may suddenly start to pee their pants, even as adults or they may begin sucking their thumb. Resorts to regression thumb sucking involve the regression psychology of self-soothing. When adolescents or adults feel like they are losing control of their lives, they go back in time to a point where they control themselves. Thumb sucking and self-soothing behaviors are common regression tactics.

What Is The Difference Between Repression And Regression?

Regression in psychology means you are going back to a previous time in your life. In contrast, the psychological definition of repression is to block out a memory or past point in time. Repression is different than regression in psychology because they are two very different reactions to a problem.

However, hypnosis is a step in managing regression and repression issues. With a trained therapist, patients can go back to a point in their memory bank and change how they remember the events that occurred. This does not mean forgetting a memory; this means that therapy and the patient change how the memory makes them feel not to repress the issue, nor do they use regression tactics.

What Are Signs Of Regression?

If there are signs that suspect regressive behavior, you should see (or have the patient see).

Regression in psychology may present as:

  • Thumb sucking

  • Bedwetting

  • Childish talk or babble

  • Insisting on being help like a baby

  • Temper tantrums

  • Refusal to speak

  • Or any other behavior that mimics that of a baby, toddler, or child

While regression is more common in older children, who revert to early childhood behaviors, adults can also be seen. When adults show signs of regression in psychology, regression in hospitalized patients is not uncommon; meaning adults sometimes need to be hospitalized when they show dramatic regressive behaviors.

How Do You Treat Regression?

Since the psychology definition of regression means to act like a younger version of oneself, it is important to understand what has changed in this individual’s life to make them turn to regression.

Managing regression is not a fast process. Treatment for regression can range from behavior therapy counseling to hypnosis. Deeping on the severity of the case, hospitalization is sometimes required; if the patient completely loses touch with reality, it may be necessary to have in-patient care.

How Do You Prevent Regression?

Talking to a counselor or psychologist is an excellent way to prevent regression. This is especially true if the patient knows they have a challenging history, and they find themselves craving to go back in time.

Do Therapists Recommend Age Regression?

While recommending age regression is controversial, considering the psychology definition of regression is to revert to a younger age. Some patients do use regression to help them relax and eliminate stress. Since regression is a symptom of a more significant health condition, therapists need to use causation to voluntarily ask for a patient to go back in time.


Understanding the definition of regression can be key in working through any concerns about your own behavior or that of a loved one. If you need addition help, you can reach out to a certified therapist through ReGain—an affordable, convenient, and private therapy option.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.