Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychological responses to things that the mind finds anxiety-provoking, uncomfortable, or threatening. Everyone uses defense mechanisms from time to time; however, it becomes problematic to engage in defense mechanisms too frequently. Doing so can create problems in relationships, communication, and self-worth.

Addiction and defense mechanisms often occur together. Such mechanisms can prolong addiction or prevent someone from seeking recovery. Learn more about the relationship between substance abuse and addiction.

What are Some Common Defense Mechanisms?

These are some common defense mechanisms and behaviors that people with an addiction might exhibit.


Repression is the mind's way of protecting itself from traumatizing memories. A person will try to forget about their traumatizing memories because the mind does not know how to process them. Substance abuse and repression often go hand in hand, and many people seek substances to help repress negative thoughts or feelings.


Denial is a common defense mechanism that involves refusing to acknowledge something that would be inconvenient or unpleasant for a person to recognize. For example, someone with a substance use disorder might deny having an issue with drugs because it would mean acknowledging that they have a problem.


Compartmentalization is also common in an individual with an addiction. They may easily be able to separate a part of themselves or undermine certain values or convictions. They keep their addiction and associated behaviors separate from the rest of their life.


Projection occurs when a person projects their own thoughts or feelings onto someone else because it would be unacceptable for them to think or feel that way about themselves. Someone may project negative feelings about their addiction onto loved ones.


Displacement is when a person displaces their feelings from one situation onto another because it wouldn’t be appropriate or comfortable for them to express their feelings in the initial setting.


People using this defense mechanism regress back to an earlier psychological state when dealing with stress. Someone living with an addiction may disengage from society and responsibilities in favor of using drugs.

Even if you do not have a substance use disorder, some of these defense mechanisms may be relatable to you, because they are behaviors and thinking patterns we all engage in from time to time. Some of them can even be considered healthy.

The important thing about defense mechanisms is that they don’t become overused, because that inhibits personal growth and connection with others. In some cases, defense mechanisms can lead to dangerous or illegal behaviors.

Often in addiction recovery, it’s important to seek help for defense mechanisms as well. If you recognize some of the behaviors mentioned in yourself or a loved one, it may be time to seek addiction treatment services.

Author's Bio: 

Desiree Patton is a Media Correspondent for Pyramid Healthcare, a provider of treatment for adults and teens suffering from addiction or substance abuse, as well as individuals with mental health disorders. Our locations in western, central, and eastern Pennsylvania allow us to provide comprehensive care across the entire state to people with behavioral health issues.