Psychotherapy Services in South West London

Coping and defence mechanism: What is the difference?

Defence mechanisms – i.e., mental mechanisms that alter perception are postulated to function so as to protect the person from excessive anxiety, whether the source of that anxiety be the perception of a disturbing external event or the presence of a disruptive internal psychological state (e.g. a wish, drive or fear) and coping mechanism are postulated so as overt and covert behaviours that are taken to reduce or eliminate psychological distress or stressful conditions. There is consistent overlap between the two main functions of coping and defence: to reduce negative affect and to return to baseline functioning but coping and defence are differentiated. Coping being defined as mechanisms eliciting secondary processes of thought allowing the individual deliberate, defence being defined as mechanisms referring to primary processes of thought and putting the individual in a situation of non voluntary and rigid functioning. Defence and coping usually occur at adjacent moments, but not simultaneously, in situations of everyday life or in the patient’s narrative in psychotherapy. First the individual tries to solve the problem associated with stress or conflict by engaging in coping processes, second, if they fail, the individual uses defences. Defence mechanisms facilitate or impede the realization of the cognitive or behaviour oriented coping. Defences are usually defined as processes with an important unconscious part. Defence remains a personality related concept, very close to its Freudian definition whereas coping processes are used once the individual’s basic unconscious defensive stance has been established. Coping processes can still be adaptive, even when preceding defences but adaptive coping may be restricted by underlying immature defence mechanism. For example suppression, traditionally categorized as mature defence imply a semiconscious decision to defer paying attention. Suppression thus involves conscious intention to not allow some thought or event to create psychological disturbance. Facing the same unconscious conflict, the individual does not need to defend himself by using the same defence across situations, but tends to use certain defences more often than others, yielding a profile of typical defensive patterns, which undergoes only limited fluctuation over time. For coping the particularities of the situation and its subjective appraisal by the individual determine the coping process involved, not directly the individual’s personality nor the nature of inner conflicts. This implies higher fluctuation for coping over time, compared to defences. This distinction implies the differentiation of determinants in adaptation processes: coping is essentially externally determined – a concept related to the individual level of competence in adaptation, whereas defences are essentially internally determined – a concept implying a certain degree of reality-distorted perception.

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