Stress & Adaptation: Effects, Defense Mechanisms & Coping Strategies

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  • 0:01 Stressful Events
  • 1:25 Defense and Coping
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

In this lesson, we explore the stress response and how people typically deal with stressful situations. We give a nod to situations older people have to deal with and what they are likely to do in response.

Stressful Events

Life is filled with stressful events. Some you can see coming, like having a new baby. Some are completely unexpected, like having my dishwasher draining into my closet and everything being covered in mold. Life is chaotic; sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrendous messes of events that can cause happiness and stress.

Looking at stress in a simple way, we can define it as physiological and psychological strain. It is a multi-systemic issue. When we become stressed, our bodies release a hormone known as cortisol. In the short run, cortisol helps us fight better, run longer and have more energy because it causes our body to release other hormones. But in the long run, it is extremely caustic and will break down organs and the brain. Think of it like a chemical booster for an engine; it works for a few seconds or minutes, but if you continuously put NOS into an engine, it'd blow itself up or melt.

Many things can cause stress. As we discussed earlier, they often have to do with life events beyond our control. Things like car problems, house problems and problems with other people likely top the list of everyone in the United States. I'm sure it would take you less than a minute to list 10 things that stress you out.

Defense and Coping

It isn't all bad. If we didn't have a way to control stress, the human race never would have survived. What I'm getting at is there are ways to cope with stressors.

A defense mechanism is a psychoanalytic term used to describe behaviors or thought patterns used to reduce stress and anxiety. When I say psychoanalytic, this means it goes back to the Freudian school of thought. The term 'defense mechanism' is basically interchangeable with coping strategy, which is a behavior or thought pattern used to reduce stress and anxiety. Many of the schools of thought don't want to show allegiance to Freud or his ideas, so they will use terms like coping strategies.

Let's look at each of the main types of defense mechanisms and/or coping strategies. Some you will notice are healthier than others. Most people rely on two or three, but we all do most of these at least sometimes.


Denial is a rejection or blocking of an event. An unlikely example is a person whose carpet is soaked and mold is growing down the walls. They just refuse to see what is happening.

A more likely example is that Bill drinks a lot and his family continues to ignore it. They just don't want to acknowledge it. Or your grandparent has a broken hip, but they want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Denial helps people manage their stress by outright blocking it out. Sort of an 'out of sight, out of mind' concept here. It often ends in disaster, since something that is ignored doesn't go away.

Reaction Formation

Reaction formation is turning thoughts and feelings into their opposite. Here we have Ted, who is in no way inspired by true events. Ted is a politician known for supporting bills to reduce the rights of the LGBTO community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, other). Ted is arrested one day in a bathroom of a park for having sexual intercourse with a man. He turned his true feelings into its opposite.

Reaction formation helps people deal with stress by letting them believe they are actually not doing something. In our example, Ted is able to suppress his own fear of his own homosexuality by channeling it into anti-gay legislation. What is really happening, though, is his thoughts and perceptions of himself have become so distorted that it ends up creating more stress in the end.


Rationalization is justification for a situation or feelings. Have you ever listened to hate speech? If you have, you know that the logic they use is really slipshod. They rationalize their hatred by citing biblical scripture, pseudoscientific research and the belief that people they hate are less than human. They rationalize their beliefs under the idea that they are merely following a logical path instead of facing the fact that they are themselves terrible human beings.

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