In psychology, regression is a defense mechanism in which an individual copes with stressful or anxiety-provoking relationships or situations by retreating to an earlier developmental stage.
Regression may be seen at any stage of development in both adults and children when someone behaves in a way that's immature or inappropriate for their age. For example, an older adult who is hospitalized after being diagnosed with a medical issue may deal with their circumstances by curling up in the fetal position and clutching a stuffed animal.
On the other hand, a young child whose parents just brought home their baby sibling may deal with the insecurity of no longer being an only child by reverting to behavior they'd outgrown, such as wetting the bed or sucking their thumb.
This article details the history of this concept and explains how manifests in children and adults. It also discusses how you can overcome regression.
Common Defense Mechanisms People Use to Cope with Anxiety
History of Regression
Regression and other defense mechanisms were proposed by Sigmund Freud in the 19th century as part of his psychoanalytic theory. His ideas about defense mechanisms, including regression, were later expanded on by his daughter Anna Freud.
Defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies used to protect the ego from stress, fear, or trauma. According to Anna Freud, regression is an immature defense mechanism because the individual who regresses cannot cope in a more constructive, age-appropriate way.
Fixation and Regression
In Freud's conception, the defense mechanism of regression is closely tied to his stages of psychosexual development. Freud's theory specifies several stages children go through from infancy through adolescence but especially focuses on development between birth and the age of six.
Stages during this time include the oral, anal, and phallic stages, and everyone goes through them. As a result, a person can become preoccupied with a particular stage regardless of how much they grow beyond it, which Freud called "fixation."
Such fixations can manifest themselves in behavior that's indicative of a given stage. For example, if a person is fixated in the oral stage, they may suck on a pen while they're working or smoke, eat, or drink in excess. Similarly, fixation on the anal stage may manifest itself in a preoccupation with keeping things tidy.
Other people, however, may not show any signs of fixation until something happens in their lives that cause stress or trauma. It is only at this point when the defense mechanism of regression will be used to shield their ego, leading them to revert to an earlier stage.
For example, someone going through a tough breakup who typically isn't fixated at the oral stage may suddenly find eating brings them comfort. In these cases, regression is based on the strength of the fixation. If the person's fixation on an earlier stage is relatively weak, a major stressor would be needed to lead them to regress; on the other hand, if the person's fixation is strong, even a minor stressor could result in regression.
Regression in Children
Young children develop new skills and abilities rapidly, however, regression is also a common part of their development. In particular, it is normal and even helpful for a child to regress slightly after mastering something new or adjusting to a new situation like attending daycare or preschool for the first time.
Regression is often a product of being overwhelmed by the new developmental milestone they've reached and the fact that it takes them out of a previously established comfort zone.
For instance, a child who has recently learned to feed himself may suddenly seem unable to do so and revert to relying on his caregivers to feed him. Or the first day a child is dropped off at pre-school they may cry and cling to her parent's leg even though she hasn't exhibited this kind of behavior in months.
While regression can happen at any point in childhood, toddlers and preschoolers are especially prone to it.
Parents and caregivers can help their children through periods of regression by being reassuring and supportive. Regression is a way for children to express their feelings about their development, so caregivers shouldn't ignore their behavior. However, they should set limits by suggesting alternative ways of coping.
For example, if a child has a temper tantrum every time he's dropped off at school, a caregiver might remind him of the fun he had last time he went and reassure him that they will be there to pick him up as soon as the school day is over.
While regression throughout childhood is normal and usually brief, if it lasts longer than a few weeks, there might be cause for concern. If a single instance of regression continues beyond two to three weeks, it could be worth checking in with the child's doctor to make sure something else isn't going on that's holding back their developmental progress.
Regression in Adults
Like children, adults sometimes regress, often as a temporary response to a traumatic or anxiety-provoking situation. For example, a person stuck in traffic may experience road rage, the kind of tantrum they'd never have in their everyday life but helps them cope with the stress of driving.
Similarly, a college freshman who is about to take their first test may stay up all night video chatting with their best friend as they did in high school as a way to calm their nerves. In these instances, the individual is regressing to a stage in their development when they felt safer and more secure, or when a caregiver could rescue them from their insecurities.
Studies have shown that regression generally decreases throughout adulthood. A longitudinal study with European-Americans showed that between adolescence and the age of 65, use of the defense mechanism of regression decreased. However, after 65, regression increased, which the researchers attributed to the challenges of maintaining adaptive coping strategies in older adulthood.
Similarly, a cross-sectional study comparing younger, primarily White adults with the average age of about 20 years old and older, primarily White adults with the average age of about 71 years old found that the younger adults tended to use regression more than older adults. The researchers speculated that this difference may be the result of immature regressive behaviors being more acceptable for younger adults while seeming maladaptive and pathological in older adults.
How to Overcome Regression
While regression is often a temporary response to stress that won't lead to larger issues, in many cases the individual may be unaware their behavior is regressive, even though to the outside observer the immaturity of their actions may be quite obvious.
Often telling an adult that their behavior is uncharacteristically childish or age-inappropriate will enable them to recognize what they're doing and determine how to respond to whatever is causing them distress in a more productive way.
On the other hand, regression can also be a sign of larger issues. A reliance on regression can be a sign of poor coping skills that may require the help of a counselor or therapist to work through. If you notice you have trouble dealing constructively with the stress of everyday life and tend to act helpless or immature in the face of problems, this may be a sign that you need to work with a professional to improve your coping skills.
Regression may also be a sign of major physical or psychological problems like catatonia, delirium, psychotic disorders, major depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder, dissociative disorders, dementia, or substance abuse disorders.
If there's a concern that a person's regression is the sign of a larger difficulty, a medical doctor or mental health professional should be consulted. They will diagnose the issue and work with the patient or their loved ones to come up with a plan to manage it. Regression is a symptom of these issues, so the goal would be to treat the underlying disorder, naturally leading to the individual exhibiting less or even completely overcoming regression.
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Rich M. Child regression: What it is and how you can support your little one. Unicef.org. https://www.unicef.org/parenting/child-development/what-is-childhood-regression.(Video) What is Regression | Defense Mechanism by Sigmund Freud | Ego Defense Mechanism | Urdu/Hindi
Diehl M, Chui H, Hay EL, Lumley MA, Grühn D, Labouvie-Vief G. Change in coping and defense mechanisms across adulthood: Longitudinal findings in a European American sample.Dev Psychol. 2014;50(2):634-648. doi:10.1037/a0033619
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.
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WHAT IS REGRESSION? According to Sigmund Freud,1 regression is an unconscious defense mechanism, which causes the temporary or long-term reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development (instead of handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult manner).What is regression short answer? ›
A regression is a statistical technique that relates a dependent variable to one or more independent (explanatory) variables. A regression model is able to show whether changes observed in the dependent variable are associated with changes in one or more of the explanatory variables.How do you know if a regression is good enough? ›
Statisticians say that a regression model fits the data well if the differences between the observations and the predicted values are small and unbiased. Unbiased in this context means that the fitted values are not systematically too high or too low anywhere in the observation space.What questions can regression answer? ›
There are 3 major areas of questions that the regression analysis answers – (1) causal analysis, (2) forecasting an effect, (3) trend forecasting.What is regression explain with an example? ›
Example: we can say that age and height can be described using a linear regression model. Since a person's height increases as age increases, they have a linear relationship. Regression models are commonly used as statistical proof of claims regarding everyday facts.Why is it called regression? ›
"Regression" comes from "regress" which in turn comes from latin "regressus" - to go back (to something). In that sense, regression is the technique that allows "to go back" from messy, hard to interpret data, to a clearer and more meaningful model.What simple regression tells us? ›
Simple linear regression is used to estimate the relationship between two quantitative variables. You can use simple linear regression when you want to know: How strong the relationship is between two variables (e.g. the relationship between rainfall and soil erosion).What is regression and its importance? ›
Regression analysis is a powerful statistical method that allows you to examine the relationship between two or more variables of interest. While there are many types of regression analysis, at their core they all examine the influence of one or more independent variables on a dependent variable.What causes psychological regression? ›
Both involuntary and voluntary age regression can be triggered by stress, fear, insecurity, or trauma. Unconscious age regression can also be a symptom of certain illnesses, neurological conditions, or mental health conditions, including: post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)What causes regression in child development? ›
Kids regressing—moving backwards in their development—is a common phenomenon. It is usually in reaction to a stressor: a move, a new baby in the family, a change in schools or caregivers, or…a global pandemic, to name a few. Any change or disruption in children's daily routines is stressful.
People who practice age regression may begin showing juvenile behaviors like thumb-sucking or whining. Others may refuse to engage in adult conversations and handle issues they're facing. Age regression is sometimes used in psychology and hypnotherapy.What causes someone to regress? ›
Involuntary age regression can be a symptom of mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia, or mood disorders. Voluntary age regression is sometimes used to cope or for relaxation.