Addiction and Psychological Defenses

Defense mechanisms are an extremely important aspect of healthy psychological functioning.  There can however be a fine line between defenses that are healthy, and one’s that are dysfunctional and potentially damaging.  Defenses such as repression (pushing away conscious thought of unpleasantness) , projection(disavowing a disliked aspect of one’s self and attributing it to others) , displacement (phobias), rationalization (attempting to use logic to explain the illogical), and the gran’daddy of them all, denial (no explanation necessary). 

Both healthy and unhealthy people utilize the very same defenses.  It is only the manner in which these defenses are used that defines what is functional or dysfunctional.  A psychologically healthy individual can use all of these defenses in a flexible and circumstantial manner.  Essentially, healthy individuals do not attempt to utilize one specific defense or another, and can at times confront uncomfortable feelings and engage in introspection.  There is value in experiencing your emotions good or bad, at least occasionally, preferably more often. 

Psychologically unhealthy individuals use defenses such as these in a much different manner.  They will attemptto NEVER feel negative feelings, and addicts and abusers of drugs or alcohol will use substances to strengthen their defense mechanisms and avoid unpleasant feelings at all costs.  Interestingly these individuals will also attempt to utilize the same defense mechanism in a rigid manner across situations such as the person who always seems to accuse others of misdeeds without addressing his own.

If there is one defense that is most common among drug addicts and alcoholics, it would have to be denial.  Denial is the only way that an addict can abuse drugs despite losing their health, losing friends, maybe their job or getting in trouble with the law.  The consistent abuse of these substances despite experiencing severe negative consequences simply does not make any type of logical sense.  But the addict will battle their own denial that undermines their health even in sobriety.  Every day a recovering addict must remind themselves that they still possess this sickness that can strip them of their lives because their own denial threatens to lure them back to the life of using.

It has been reported that 12.5% of Americans  report experiencing alcohol dependence in at least some point of their lives.  18% report alcohol abuse in at least some part of their lives.  However only 24% of those dependent upon alcohol ever enter into any kind of treatment and only 7% of those alcohol abusers ever enter treatment.  Why are the numbers of people seeking treatment for alcoholism so low?  It certainly is not due to scarcity of options.  Between A.A. and all of the therapists offering treatment for addictions, help is never very far away.  The reason these numbers are so low is because of denial.  I would venture the guess that those seeking help are the ones who can admit they even have a problem, while most of the others cannot admit this to themselves despite overwhelming evidence in some cases.  Denial, though necessary to survive the daily rigors of life for both healthy and unhealthy psyches can present a major problem if used as one’s exclusive method of dealing with stress. 

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