Regression Psychology

Updated October 30, 2023by MyTherapist Editorial Team

In the field of psychotherapy, regression is a fascinating subject for many. Though the concept of regression – moving backwards or in the opposite way of progress – has been around presumably for as long as humans have, it didn’t really gain attention or begin to be studied until the 19th and 20th centuries, when psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and his daughter, Anna Freud, posited regression as a type of defense mechanism.

In this article, we will delve into what regression looks like, what causes it, how to identify it, and recommendations for developing more effective coping mechanisms.

Regression May Be A Sign Of A Mental Health Condition

What Is Regression?

Regression is a psychological defense mechanism an individual may use to help them cope with stress or anxiety in a relationship or difficult life situation, either as a temporary or long-term solution. Regression most often occurs unconsciously. In regression, a person may handle stress or anxiety by acting out behaviors associated with an earlier developmental stage of life (like childhood or adolescence).

The reason these regressive defense mechanisms exist in the first place is that our brain utilizes them for survival purposes. Regression may have been a survival tool necessary to gather food or fight a threat – a way to make ourselves appear not as threatening (or appetizing) as we actually are, in the face of an animal predator or human enemy. However, in the modern world, we don’t face those same life-or-death encounters on such a frequent basis, and regression may be unnecessary.

With regression, a person may adopt traits and behaviors that are associated with their past. For example, a child going through a stressful divorce may start wetting the bed again, even though they may have not wet the bed in years. 

The History Of Regression

Along with many of the still-studied theories of psychology, including behavioral psychology, the study of regression goes all the way back to Sigmund Freud. Freud discovered defensive mechanisms and developed the psychosexual stages such as oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital in his Developmental Theory book. While these theoretical stages are still somewhat contested today, Freud believed that the earlier stages of life may influence the behaviors that make us an adult (something that most psychologists believe quite strongly today).

Freud’s daughter, Anna, significantly expanded the research into regressive behavior; she looked at regressive behavior and pointed out how important it is as a defense mechanism. She believed that whatever behavior the person has may determine the stage of development that they were possibly fixated on.

With the oral stage, for example, someone may develop habits that focus on the mouth. Eating, smoking, and any other fixation that would have to do with the mouth may indicate an oral fixation. Freud also believed those who have a fixation on the anal stage, depending on the parental response as a child, would either exhibit excessively clean behaviors or have a messier or wasteful personality.

The phallic stage, which is deemed most controversial, may create regressive fixations that involve being more sexually promiscuous as an adult. With a latent fixation, Freud believed that individuals may have a difficult time creating fulfilling relationships as an adult. While many of Freud’s theories may not be supported today, regression is one concept that has remained for many years as it's observable in many cases in modern psychology.

Examples Of Regressive Behavior

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Regressive behavior can manifest in many ways. While it is a normal response to experiencing stress, regression could indicate an underlying mental health condition. It is important for people to show compassion toward those exhibiting regressive behavior – especially as caregivers – and to learn strategies for coping with regression effectively. Here are some examples of regressive behaviors:

  • A college student returns to biting their nails because they are stressed from school.
  • To cope with heartbreak, someone goes into a fetal position and does not leave the bed for hours.
  • A child clings to their legs when they watch their parent leave for a business trip.
  • An adult who doesn’t get their way may cope by being overly emotional about it as a child might.
  • A child reverts to earlier behaviors when their sibling is born as a means to gain attention.
  • Someone may bring a teddy bear or baby blanket with them to college, even though they haven’t used that bear for years.
  • A person may start giggling when being introduced to someone as a way of coping with their nervousness.

Why Regression Happens

You may wonder why regression happens in the first place. Like any defensive behavior, regression may help an individual cope with stress, fear, or trauma. If there’s an event that’s causing severe mental distress, a person may unconsciously look back to a point when the stress didn’t exist, often unaware that they are using this defense mechanism of regression.

Regression may come in diverse forms depending on the individual. Sometimes, the changes that come are blatant and can be a distraction. Other times, the regressive behavior is more subtle. Someone could return to biting their nails to feel less stress or have a tantrum when stuck in traffic. The subtle behaviors may make the person not realize what they are doing, and even blatant regression can come with the person not realizing fully that they are regressing, even though an outside individual may be fully aware that the behavior is regressive.

Regression can have many causes besides emotional distress such as stress, anxiety, or trauma. There are psychiatric and medical cases that could potentially lead to regression. Here are some examples:

  • Catatonia, a psychomotor syndrome, may be a cause of regression in some individuals. Many behavioral and motoric symptoms may cause catatonia and be associated with regressive behavior; however, they are not mutually exclusive.
  • Personality disorders such as schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder could involve regressive behavior.
  • Delirium is another reason why regressive behaviors happen, as delirium leads to cognitive dysfunction and a shorter attention span. The individual may believe that they are, indeed, the age that they are acting.
  • Major depressive disorder can be incredibly draining, and individuals may have difficulties with eating or doing the things they need to, such as working or going to the grocery store. This may cause them to revert to regressive behaviors as a means of coping. These could include nail-biting, reading books, or playing games they used to as a child, and so forth.
  • Dementia involves a decline in cognition, commonly associated with the older population. The best example of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. With Alzheimer’s, the individual may not realize where they are and who they are, and they may revert to their behaviors when they were younger as a result. A person with dementia may require caretakers to live a full life.
  • Dissociative disorders can lead to regression. Amnesia may lead to regression, and so can dissociative identity disorder.
  • Substance use disorders can potentially lead to regression. Someone who uses alcohol excessively, for instance, may have a reduction in cognitive behaviors and abilities. Also, many people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol experience relapse, which is another example of regressive behavior. Someone who has an addiction to drugs or alcohol may benefit from seeing a professional, as regressive behavior can worsen addiction and vice-versa.

Treating Regression

Regression May Be A Sign Of A Mental Health Condition

While regressive behaviors may help an individual cope with stress or trauma temporarily, there are healthier ways to cope. The first step to managing regression may be to rule out any underlying medical or psychological issues. 

Sometimes, the regression goes away on its own as the source of stress dissipates. A person may look to treating their stressful situations with therapy or medication to reduce their regressive behavior. 

In other scenarios, a medical professional can provide tools and strategies that may help an individual find healthier ways to cope. Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychoanalysis may be beneficial by replacing regressive behaviors with empowered alternatives.

Mindfulness may be a useful tool an individual can use in their everyday life to manage stress or anxiety. Mindfulness teaches a person to focus on the present and assists in changing negative thought patterns, and can thus help mitigate regressive behaviors. Mindfulness can also help us to more fully recognize when we are engaging in regressive behaviors without negative judgement of ourselves and change them in the moment into more positive patterns. This can include something as simple as focusing on our breathing, a particular scent that brings us comfort, or the sensation of warm water on our skin.

Online Therapy For Regressive Behaviors

When regression is typically a symptom of a psychiatric disorder or mental health issue, the solution is often to treat the underlying psychiatric disorder or difficultly instead of using medicine or therapies exclusively for the regressive behaviors themselves. This helps heal the root of the issue, rather than just the branches. Through online counseling platforms like MyTherapist, you can work with an empathetic, licensed mental health counselor who can help you understand why you or someone you love is exhibiting regressive behaviors. 

Many people like online therapy because it enables them to schedule virtual therapy sessions at convenient times, and they don’t need to travel to an in-person therapist’s office to get help. Through MyTherapist, users can even text their counselors in the moment if they need advice. Online counseling is also considered to be a more affordable option than face-to-face therapy.

Online therapy is efficacious in treating many of the causes of regressive behavior, including major depressive disorder and substance use disorder. Many caregivers for people living with dementia have also benefited from the guidance of an online counselor. One recent study recruited caregivers to participate in an online intervention called ‘Mastery Over Dementia’ in order to examine its effectiveness in reducing their symptoms of depression and anxiety. Engaging in the online therapy intervention was connected to improved symptoms, and caregivers found it particularly helpful because they did not need to leave the home in order to receive support.


If you believe you may be experiencing regressive behavior and it’s causing you difficulties in your life, know that you are not alone. Seeking support from a medical professional may be helpful. MyTherapist is an online therapy platform that can match you with a licensed professional who is best equipped to help you meet your needs. They can provide tools and strategies to help you develop healthy coping mechanisms and improve your overall mental health and well-being. Reach out to a licensed counselor at MyTherapist to get the support you deserve. 

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