What is Regression in Psychology?

Author Tracy Smith
Updated on February 19, 2023

Oftentimes, life does not turn out the way that we plan. Strategic decisions, calculated movements, and premeditated events can turn out much differently than we expect, rendering us bewildered, overwhelmed, and downright stressed. How we handle this stress is indicative of our personalities, our resilience, and the strength of our coping mechanisms. Ideally, we would simply reach into our trusty bag and whip out the perfect coping strategy every time a problem came around. However, it is not that easy and instead, we are left to cope and defend ourselves as best as we can.

teddy bear

Sigmund Freud, also known as the “Father of Psychoanalysis,” was an Austrian neurologist who established psychoanalytic theory in the late 19th century. Psychoanalysis is a clinical method for healing the human psyche and comprises a theory of behavior and personality. Psychoanalysis presented the notion of defense mechanisms, psychological strategies that guard an individual against distressing thoughts when they have ineffective methods of coping. One such defense mechanism is regression.

Regression Defined

Regression refers to an unconscious, emotional defense mechanism where an individual’s personality reverts to an earlier point of development. A person will display behaviors from childhood when confronted with threatening or objectionable situations. These individuals regress to previous points in their lives when they felt nurtured and secure and when problems were unknown or could readily be taken care of. 

Individuals will regress to an era where a parent or guardian was perceived to be their protector. People will then operate under the assumption that their protector will remedy the stressful situations that they are in.

What Does Regressive Behavior Look Like?

Regressive behavior can vary from person to person, as people will revert to different stages and portray distinctive behaviors. Regression can either be harmless and subtle or more problematic and overt, with higher levels of stress precipitating more blatant modes of regression. Milder forms of regression can include sucking a thumb, chewing on a pen cap, or sleeping with a stuffed animal. 

connect to an online therapist today

More moderate forms of regression can include rocking and crying in the fetal position, wetting the bed, or throwing a temper tantrum. Most individuals are unaware that they are regressing, while viewers assume that behaviors are merely improper and immature.

What Causes Regression?

Freud believed that regression was a significant and influential factor in the formation of neurosis. His daughter, Anna Freud, proposed that individuals perform at the developmental stage where their minds are stuck and fixated. The Freudian philosophy asserted that regressive behaviors could be explained by fixations culminating from frustration surrounding psychosexual developmental stages. Freud believed that individuals had only two ways to solve problems, either by resolving them as an adult or by handling them through regression.

Regression is more prevalent during childhood than adulthood and is commonly precipitated by trauma, stress, or disturbance. Despite less frequency, a regression can occur at any stage of adulthood and can revert as far back as the later stages of infancy. Adults can regress in response to situations that prompt worry, fright, irritation, uncertainty, or negative emotion.

Dealing With Regressive Behaviors

Admittedly, when problems arise, the perfect coping strategy is not immediately at our disposal. As adults, when life doesn’t turn out the way that we plan, we utilize whatever coping strategies are available to us and hope that they propel us through difficult moments. Mature coping mechanisms include journaling, talking it out, meditating, or exercising. For some adults, the stress is too much to handle and regressive tactics are employed. 

Regression does enable individuals to lower and manage stress in the given moment, but continual regression can negatively impact a person’s overall adjustment. For optimal and healthy functioning, individuals need to learn and employ healthy coping mechanisms on an everyday basis, often requiring the guidance of a mental health professional.


Author Tracy Smith

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for a Community YMCA. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents.

More For You