What You Think Is Depression May Really Be Trauma DefensesAs children, we do not have healthy ways to manage and process overwhelming feelings and circumstances. To protect us emotionally, our brains develop defenses as ways to avoid painful, uncomfortable, or conflicting emotions. At the time they were created, these defenses served a useful purpose. As an adult, they can cause many problems for us when navigating life’s challenges, relationships, careers, and more. Defenses block emotions and may cause psychological symptoms and suffering which may often be labeled depression.

We’re All a Little Traumatized 

In her book, It’s Not Always Depression, Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, explains that, as most of us know, childhood “big T” traumas are things like sexual or physical abuse and neglect. These are major adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that change a child’s brain and can affect their mental and physical health throughout life. Some big T traumas are:

However, unfortunately, common life experiences can also prove traumatic to a young brain. A child doesn’t have to be exposed to extreme abuse for them to be traumatized, affected emotionally, and develop defenses. Anything that overwhelms a child’s ability to cope can be traumatic. Hendel calls these “small t” traumas.

Even as adults, the everyday stuff of life can be traumatic and cause us to engage, develop, or further enforce defenses, such as losing a job, the death of a loved one, feeling different (sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, weight, mental or physical disability, etc.), moving, divorce, infidelity, having a child, physical injury, illness, legal troubles, etc. The list is endless.

Developing Defenses

Like big T traumas, small t traumas can leave lasting impressions on our mental health because they evoke powerful emotions. So, even “normal” childhood occurrences can cause a person to develop defenses to cope. As a matter of fact, we all have some kind of defense which often become problematic in adulthood. When you use defenses predominantly to navigate your life, it can leave you feeling numb, incapable, frustrated, disconnected, anxious, and cut off from yourself — a lot of what we think of as depression. Here is a long list of common defenses:

By definition, a defense is any thought, action, or other behavior that takes you away from being in touch with emotional discomfort. Even an emotion can be used as a defense against another emotion. For example, you might get angry when you are really scared or anxious. Defenses are instinctual and subconscious reactions your mind makes in an effort to protect you from emotional pain and overwhelm. In other words, defenses are your brain’s way of protecting you.

 Some Defenses are Helpful

Not every defense is unhealthy. In fact, you need some defenses, even as an adult, when emotions aren’t practical or helpful at the moment. Defenses let you set your emotions aside so you can act professionally at your job or function as required in any situation. Some defenses can be useful and adaptive, at the time, like choosing to watch Netflix when you need a break from something stressful. (I use that one a lot.) Or, perhaps, reframe your thinking to encourage you to move forward even though you’re anxious or squashing your feelings when you need to pause to stop anger from escalating

Hendel explains how defenses can hurt us:

When energy from emotions is diverted to defenses, there are many costs to our wellbeing. Defenses require energy to be maintained. So, defenses deaden us by using up vital energy that could be used for relationships, work and outside interests. Defenses prevent us from knowing and expressing what we want and truly feel and keep our true authentic selves hidden and tempered. Most people don’t feel good in the long run when they stay hidden. Defenses also make us more rigid, causing us to lose flexibility in thoughts and actions. Defenses can cause us to feel trapped, inhibited, limited, or not able to reach our potential.  Too many defenses make it hard to wholeheartedly engage in life.”

Some Are Destructive

Conversely, defenses can also be self-destructive. Defenses become detrimental when they involve harmful behaviors or you become so removed from your feelings that your body and mind are negatively affected. Since defenses block access to important emotions, like fear which informs us to be cautious, defenses can cause you to indulge in risky behaviors, like drug use, thrill-seeking, or unprotected sex. An “I don’t care” attitude can be a defense that prevents a person from knowing who and what they value. Hendel writes:

When we are not aware of what we care about and why, we lose the ability to create the life we want or need. For example, Joe believed he didn’t care about women other than for sex. Yet, when he was alone, he drank excessively until he fell asleep at night. Joe wasn’t happy and he convinced himself he didn’t care.  Humans do better when they are emotionally connected to others with very few exceptions. Joe’s ‘I don’t care’ defense protected him from his underlying emotions and needs for intimacy, but at great cost to his satisfaction and joy.”

What You Think Is Depression May Really Be Emotional Defenses

How to Move Beyond Your Defenses​

In her book, It’s Not Always Depression, Hendel proposes that we become more self-aware by learning about our emotions and using a tool called the Change Triangle. The Change Triangle is based on a relatively new type of psychotherapy called Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy or AEDP. It’s a visual depiction and practice which teaches people to effectively access and process blocked emotions. The triangle diagram depicts the relationship between emotions, anxiety, and defenses.

Hendel explains it like this:

Grounded in current science, the Change Triangle is a step-by-step guide to working with emotions. We can turn to the Change Triangle to manage upsetting moments and when looking to understand ourselves more deeply. We can turn to it to feel more calm, openhearted, and authentic. Working the Change Triangle over time builds resilience and emotional stability. With practice comes change.”

The Change Triangle Steps

In 5 Ways To Work The Change Triangle as a Beginner, Hendel describes the process as follows:

  1. Check-in with your mind and body.
  2. Gently notice your breathing.
  3. Notice areas of tension and calm in your body.
  4. Scan your body for feelings.
  5. Look at the Change Triangle and take a guess which corner best represents your state of mind.

For a full explanation of the Change Triangle and how to work with your emotions, read It’s Not Always Depression. Click here to print a Change Triangle cheat sheet.

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  1. This is SO good, Debbie. I love that it’s a whole system to help us transform unhealthy defense mechanisms into health ways of beings. This is also so important to know, that sometimes depression is not depression.

  2. Cathy Taughinbaugh Reply

    This is a very interesting article, Debbie. Depression and its cause can be misunderstood. The Change Triangle seems like a helpful tool for more clarity about what is really going on and a way to help a person work through their feelings.

  3. Great information here Debbie. I had to laugh when you talked about using netflix when you need a break from something stressful. I find myself at the end of a challenging day turning to ‘feel good’ movies. It gives my mind a break, always a good thing.

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