By Dr. Anthony Policastro

A few weeks ago someone suggested that a column I wrote about psychological defense mechanisms implied that I thought people who used them had mental illness. That is not at all true.

There are many psychological defense mechanisms that we use on a daily basis. Most of them are healthy ways to deal with the environment around us. Just because they have psychological origins does not make them abnormal.

The best example of that is denial. When we first hear bad news, the initial reaction is denial. That allows us a chance to catch our breath before having to deal with unpleasant news.

We commonly use rationalization. Even the ancient Greeks knew about this. One of Aesop’s fables dealt with a fox. The fox was trying to jump up and reach some grapes on a vine. He finally had to give up. As he left he thought to himself that the grapes were probably sour anyway. This is where the term sour grapes comes from. It was a healthy way of dealing with adversity.

There are many similar defense mechanisms. We use them to lower our levels of anxiety. We use them to help bolster our self esteem. We use them to handle frustrating situations. 

We use a predictable series of them to deal with losses. The normal reactions are denial, anger, bargaining, mourning and acceptance. Moving through these stages helps us deal with the loss emotionally.

There is nothing wrong with using psychological defense mechanisms. They do not reflect mental illness.

There are times when people will go down a proverbial “rabbit hole” with their mechanisms. This is when it leads them into behaviors that are less healthy. We often see this kind of thing in the writings of individuals who become suicidal. We can see the same kind of thing in the minds of individuals who become homicidal.

In those instances the psychological defense mechanisms are no longer helping the person deal with their emotions. They are actually worsening those emotions.

Like anything dealing with the way we react to things, there are healthy ways of doing so. There are also unhealthy ways of doing so.

When I write about the reasons people do the kinds of things that they do, it is not to point out the error of their ways. It is more aimed at explaining why they see things differently than others. Psychological defense mechanisms are a healthy part of our emotional functioning.

COVID update- New case numbers continue to drop. Nationally they have gone from 615,000 last week to 469,000 this week. That is the lowest number since May. 

Sussex County has gone from 356 last week to 248 this week. That is the lowest number since April. We remain in the medium risk zone.