About Defense Mechanisms

Module 3: About Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms (or coping styles), are psychological processes that help protect a person against anxiety and alert the brain and body of any internal or external conflicts and dangers that may exist.

People with PTSD develop a variety of [conscious and unconscious] defense mechanisms. These have the power to positively or negatively influence your ability to control how the disorder interferes with your daily life and activities. Lack of control of PTSD symptoms delays healing. Even after therapy, most people with PTSD are unaware of these processes, how they function and affect their lives. This leaves many people unable to properly and effectively moderate their actions and reactions to emotional conflict and internal and external stressors.

This guide touches on information, background, and definitions relevant for PTSD and C-PTSD sufferers. Read through, try to identify and take note of any healthy or unhealthy defense mechanisms you have or frequently use, and which positively or negatively influence your PTSD brain, actions, and reactions.

Keep in mind that collecting information about your PTSD is the most crucial step to start healing from the disorder. Be sure to gather information on any good and bad coping mechanisms, not just the bad ones.

Coping mechanisms work for everyone, whether you have PTSD or not. However, as a PTSD sufferer, proper coping mechanisms are crucial to your ability to function with a ‘different’ brain in a world where everything just seems out of place, agitated, and out to get you all the time.

The PTSD sufferer views the world through a lens filtered by trauma because PTSD fundamentally changes your brain chemistry. The only way to change the filter used to absorb the surrounding environment is by retraining your brain after trauma. Think of it as your brain having to relearn certain things you knew before but are now affected because of the effects of the traumatic experience in your life.

Retraining your brain and acquiring healthy custom made coping mechanisms will allow you to turn your PTSD symptoms into powerful and useful survival skills that enhance your life and make you an asset, instead of absorbing it and making you a liability.

For example, once you understand the disorder and are willing to do the work to heal, you could shift your constant state of hypervigilance and catastrophic thinking into a survival skill known as situational awareness. Shifting hypervigilance into situational awareness is just one example of how the PTSD brain can be retrained. It is possible to change how it perceives the world through the lens of negative experiences and reprogram it into a survival mode that is not based on anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, or other unhealthy feelings and emotions.

People regularly employ defense mechanisms to get through the day. Humans use defense mechanisms to better protect or preserve themselves. This holds particularly true for people battling symptoms associated with PTSD.

Psychologists characterize defense mechanisms based on how primitive they are. While primitive defense mechanisms can be effective short-term solutions for dealing with anxiety-provoking events, they are less effective long-term.

As a PTSD sufferer, learning about your responses, identifying which ones enhance your life, and adjusting faulty ones will help you reduce unreasonable impulses that stem from your moral conscience which is affected by trauma and impacted by the cocktail of symptoms that PTSD brings to your life.

As a PTSD sufferer, learning better ways of coping with stress or traumatic memories will help you regain control of your life. Part of learning better ways to cope is understanding the that your mind deals with unconscious anxieties.

Sigmund Freud's Defense Scale

Freud's Defense Scale

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, did a thorough exploration of the human mind. He was particularly interested in the way human personalities emerge. He developed a kind of topographical model of the mind where he describes features, functions, and organization of the personality through a scale known as the Defense Mechanisms Rating Scale (DMRS).

The DMRS identifies specific defense mechanisms. According to Freud, the DMRS is necessary for people to understand which adaptive levels are acceptable, and which are not. He also believed that different driving forces (motivation, power, or energy behind something) develop during childhood, and that these forces play an intricate role in how we interact with the world.

Once you have read through the coping mechanisms module, you should be able to create your own DMRS. You can start by listing (up to seven) specific defense mechanisms or copying styles that you use, whether they are healthy or unhealthy.

The Id, the Ego, and the Superego

Think of the mind as a living active organism with amazing survival capabilities. According to Freud, there were three basic stages of personality known as the Id, Ego, and Superego. The Id is the child, the Ego is the adult, and the Superego is the parent.

Understanding the Id, Ego, and Superego

Let’s say you are upset about something and you feel like punching a wall. Punching the wall is your Id taking control. But if you stopped yourself when you noticed you’re about to punch the wall (knowing you can seriously hurt your hand and cause property damage), and you think of punching a pillow instead, that’s your Ego. Now, if you criticize yourself for wanting to punch a wall and tell yourself to “grow up,” that’s your Superego kicking in, acting like the parent to teach you a valuable lesson.

The Id

The Id is based on the pleasure principle, and it’s important at an early age because it allows us to get our basic needs [met] as infants. The Id wants whatever feels good at the time (instant gratification) without consideration for the reality of the situation. The Id doesn’t care about reality or other people’s needs, only its own satisfaction. Babies are not very considerate of their exhausted parents, as they have no care for time, or whether their parents are tired, sleeping, eating, or trying to relax. When the Id wants something, nothing else matters: The Id must pursue it.

The Ego

The Ego is the second part of personality development, and it’s based on reality. The Ego understand that other people have needs and desires, and that impulsive or selfish behaviors can hurt you in the long run. It is the Ego’s job to meet the needs of the Id (to help maintain balance), but the Ego must do this while keeping in mind the reality of the situation. According to Freud, a healthy person would have their Ego personality as the strongest one, to properly satisfy the needs of the Id without upsetting the Superego.

The Superego

The Superego is all self-control, the moral component of our personalities. The parent-like feature develops after our parents, caregiver, and caretakers place moral and ethical restraints on us. In a sense, the Superego can be compared with the conscience, as it’s in charge of deciding what is right and what is wrong.

According to Freud, a mentally healthy or typically developed person would have a strong Ego to satisfy the needs of the Id without upsetting the Superego. But this is not an easy task. If the Id strengthens, impulsivity and self-gratification take over, and if the Superego becomes too strong, the person’s life will be rigid and inflexible in their interactions with the world. The Ego helps maintain peace, balance, and control.

Freud's Defense Mechanisms: Levels

Level 1: High Adaptive Level - No Compromise with Reality

Level 1: High Adaptive Level

— No Compromise With Reality

At this level, your defense functioning produces flexible handling of stressors. At a high adaptive level, your defense mechanisms maximize relief, allowing for the conscious awareness of your thoughts, feelings, ideas, and their consequences. High adaptive level defense mechanisms promote an ideal balance between any disagreeing motives that remain in your PTSD brain, and are a powerful tool to control both your perception of the world and reaction to stressors. As a PTSD and C-PTSD person, high adaptive level is where you want to be.

High Adaptive Level — Defense Mechanisms


Affiliation involves dealing with stressors by enlisting the help of others for support. You share problems with others without making them feel responsible for them.


Altruism involves dealing with stressors by dedicating your time and efforts to meeting the needs of others. You receive satisfaction vicariously or from the response of others.


As the name suggests, anticipation is all about dealing with stressors by predicting the consequences and feeling associated with any possible upcoming events and considering realistic solutions you can handle. Anticipating a potentially stressful event is one way a person might mentally prepare for it. Anticipation might involve practicing possible outcomes in your mind or telling yourself that it won’t be as bad as they imagine.  A person with a phobia of needles might anticipate a phlebotomist appointment by telling themselves that the whole ordeal will be over in just a few minutes, just like before.


My personal favorite, humor involves dealing with stressors by highlighting the amusing or cynical aspect of the situation. It is an invaluable defense mechanism when you can get passed the drama of trauma and you can have fun with it.


Self-assertion involves addressing your stress by expressing your thoughts and feelings directly, but in a manner that is not coercive, aggressive, or manipulative.


Self-observation entails dealing with your stress by reflecting on your own thoughts, feelings, motivations, and behavior, and then responding to them in an appropriate manner.


Sublimation is about dealing with stress by channeling any potentially disruptive feelings or impulses into behaviors that are more socially acceptable. For example, taking on kickboxing to channel anger impulses.


Suppression requires that you deal with stress by intentionally avoiding any thoughts about disturbing problems, wishes, feelings, objects, experiences, or instances.

Level 2: Mental Inhibition Level - Formation of a Compromise with Reality

Level 2: Mental Inhibition Level

— Formation of a Compromise with Reality

In this level, defense mechanisms keep potentially threatening ideas, memories, wishes, or fears out of your awareness. Diminished awareness has the potential of affecting your ability to relate to others.

Mental Inhibition Level — Defense Mechanisms


Displacement involves dealing with your stress by transferring any strong feelings you have  about a situation, person, or object onto another less threatening situation.


Dissociation involves addressing stress by separating from consciousness, memory, or perception of yourself, or the environment to avoid a problem, situation, person, or object. When a person dissociates, they are no longer in the present.


Intellectualization requires that you deal with stress by using excessive abstract thinking and generalizations to minimize or eliminate any unpleasant feelings. If you are emotionally attached to an issue, intellectualization states that you will consider it from an intellectual standpoint, which will usually require stepping back from the situation in order to take a neutral and unbiased view of it.

Isolation of Affect

Isolation of affect can be thought of as the inverse of intellectualization. Whereas intellectualization involves repressing the emotion but not the thought, isolation involves repressing the thought but not the emotion.

Reaction Formation

Reaction formations involves transforming an unacceptable impulse (thought or behavior) into its opposite.


Repression involves dealing with stress by suppressing disturbing thoughts, desires, or experiences from your conscious awareness. In other words, you may be aware of the repressed feelings but you won’t know where they are coming from.


In undoing, you deal with stress by utilizing words or behaviors that symbolically negate or make amends for any unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or actions.

Level 3: Minor Image Distorting Level - Minor, Yes Consistent Distortions of Reality

Level 3: Minor Image-Distorting Level

— Minor, Yet Consistent Distortions of Reality

This level is characterized by distortion in the self-image, body image, or other avenues employed to regulate self-esteem.

Minor Image-Distorting Level  — Defense Mechanisms


Devaluation involves dealing with emotional conflict, as well as internal or external stressors by attributing exaggerated negative qualities to the self or others.


Idealization is about dealing with emotional conflict, or internal and external stressors by attributing exaggerated positive qualities to others.


Omnipotence involves resolving emotional conflict, as well as internal or external stressors by pretending superiority or acting as if you have a special ability or power.

Level 4: Disavowal Level - Keeping Some Reality Out of Awareness

Level 4: Disavowal Level

— Keeping Some Reality Out Of Awareness

Characterized by keeping undesirable or unpleasant stressors, impulses, thoughts, affects, or responsibility out of awareness, with or without the erroneous attribution of these to external causes.

Disavowal Level  — Defense Mechanisms


Denial involves a refusal to acknowledge some painful aspect of external reality or subjective experience that is apparent to others. Self denial of your feelings, or previous actions, is your brain’s defense mechanism to avoid anxiety or guilt. For example, a thief might deny their physical behavior of stealing by explaining that someone force them to commit the crime. This way they avoid having to deal with the guilt of accepting their actions are wrong. Another way of looking at denial is, if you’re married but you’re attracted to your partner’s best friend, you might find it that you deny to yourself that you have these feelings. Denial is a faulty defense mechanism that violates the principle of reality that the Id sticks to, rummaging around into an imaginary world that has nothing to do with your actual and real environment.


Projection involves the false attribution of unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and impulses to another person. When we experience feelings and emotions that elicit anxiety, or that we are cannot act on to reduce the negative impact, we resort to projecting those ideas onto another person to reduce anxiety. For example, a person who is afraid of flying with a friend might accuse them of having a fear of heights. This action allows them to avoid their own weaknesses.


Rationalization involves the suppression of true motivation for thoughts, feelings, or actions through incorrect, elaborate, reassuring, and self-serving but incorrect (and not helpful) explanations. Rationalization occurs when someone tries to create excuses for a situation, person, or action using rational terms. This helps them avoid the true underlying cause or reason. For example, a shoplifter may attempt to justify their robbery by blaming the action on the prices of groceries, when it could very well be that they just like to steal things. A good example of rationalization are college students who justify a bad exam grade by stating they were too busy to study prior to the exam.

Level 5: Major Image Distortion Level - Consistent Major Distortions of Reality

Level 5: Major Image-Distorting Level

— Consistent Major Distortions of Reality

This level is characterized by gross distortion or miss-attribution of the ‘self’ image or that of others. At this level, the person is using (at least) some minimal tactics that can be characterized as significant distortions of reality.

Major Image-Distorting Level — Defense Mechanisms

Autistic Fantasy

Autistic fantasy happens when you engage in excessive daydreaming as a substitute for human relationships, method of action, or problem solving.

Projective Identification

Projective identification involves initial projection of thoughts, feelings, or impulses onto another person. This is known as simple projections. When those thoughts, feelings, or impulses are fulfilled by the other person, there’s identification with the projection.

Splitting of Self-Image or Image of Others

A person who experiences splitting resorts to understanding the world in terms of black and white. They take an either/or approach when evaluating people, situations, or objects in their environment. To them, ideas are either wrong or right, and there is not middle ground or ability to compromise. In personal and professional relationships, they tend to take the right vs. wrong approach, sticking to and admiring one group while completely rejecting those who don’t meet their standards.

Level 6: Action Level - Outward Actions that Negate Reality

Level 6: Action Level

— Outward Actions That Negate Reality

Characterized by defensive functioning that addresses internal or external stressors by action or by inaction (withdrawal). At this level, the person’s emotional state is no longer easily accessible because the emotions associated with internal or external stressors are acted upon in such manner that the emotions cannot be directly accessed.

Action Level — Defense Mechanisms

Acting Out

Acting out is when a person engages in outward physical action taken in response to internal feelings or thoughts, with their behavior acted out as a direct response to their internal emotional cues.

Apathetic Withdrawal

In this mechanism, the person withdraws from any attempts to deal with internal or external stressors or emotional states. In other words, the person simply gives us.


Here the person makes repeated requests for help, but when offered, the person rejects the help.

Passive Aggression

Displays of aggression are generally not socially acceptable or desirable behaviors, which is why people avoid violent impulses as much as possible. Passive aggression is a defense mechanism where the person engages in indirect and unassertive aggression toward others, displaying a behavior that disguises resentment, hostility, and resistance. However, the remaining energy that drives that aggressive force can be difficult to contain, and may manifest in other forms. A passive aggressive person is not cooperative when carrying out tasks, and may deliberately ignore people who are speaking to them, and adopt a negative outlook of the task at hand.

Level 7: Defensive Dysregulation Level - Probable Sustained Psychosis

Level 7: Defensive Dysregulation Level

— Probable Sustained Psychosis

This level is characterized by failure of defensive regulation to contain the individual’s reaction to stressors, leading to a noticeable break with objective reality.

Defensive Dysregulation Level — Defense Mechanisms

Delusional Projection

In delusional projection, the person uses projection and belief that the event, situation, person, or object is part of their objective reality when the fact is that it is not.

Psychotic Denial

Psychotic denial is when the person uses denial with an added component of belief that the event, person, situation, or object can be verifiably proven to be false.

Psychotic Distortion

In psychotic distortion, the person creates a new reality by making makeing internal efforts to reshape the external world through delusions and hallucinations.

Vaillant's Defense Mechanisms: Levels

Level 1: Pathological

Level 1: Pathological

Pathological, narcissistic, or psychotic defenses allow the person to effectively rearrange external experiences and eliminate the need to cope with reality. They are common in apparent psychosis, but can also be found in dreams and throughout childhood.

Pathological Defense Mechanisms

Delusional Projection

Gross direct delusions about external reality, usually persecutory in nature, including self-perception of feelings, and subsequently acts on that perception (psychotic paranoid delusions).


Refusal to accept external reality because it is perceived as too threatening. Also, arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by denying its existence.


A primal defense where negative and positive impulses are split off and unintegrated, such as the inability to view people as whole continuous beings.


Obvious reshaping of the person’s external reality in order to meet internal needs.

Extreme Projection

The obvious denial of a psychological or moral deficiency, which is perceived in another individual or group.

Level 2: Immature

Level 2: Immature

Immature defenses are often present in adults, but more commonly in adolescents. They lessen distress and anxiety provoked by threatening people or by an uncomfortable reality. Excessive use of immature defenses results in socially undesirable, immature, and difficult to manage behavior, as it is usually out of touch with reality.

Immature Defense Mechanisms

Acting Out

Direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse (in action), without the person’s conscious awareness of the emotion that elicits that expressive behavior. When the instinctive component of the mind signals the desire to act on an impulse, the part of the mind that mediates, and the conscious mind will generally counteract this desire, if they feel that the behavior would be counterproductive or immoral. For example, a non-PTSD sufferer may want to curse after falling down some steps, but the conscious mind will perceive blurting obscenities as contradicting social etiquette, and will lead the person to hold back on the action. However, for people with PTSD, balancing those impulses may not work, and the mind many simply choose to act out the desires.


A person’s tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts. When a person’s life seems distressing or boring, they may resort to use fantasy as a way of escaping reality. From winning the lottery to taking expensive vacations, the person idealizes outcomes of their life changing for the better in some way that makes them happy. In a sense, fantasies help us explore alternatives to situations that make us unhappy, but by bringing unrealistic expectation of them being achieved. Fantasies can lead a person to lose touch with reality and taking more plausible actions to actually improving their lives. I am not suggesting that it is wrong to fantasize, just make sure you are not doing it as a defense mechanism to avoid your current reality, instead of actually doing the work to change your current reality.


When a person unconsciously chooses to perceive another individual as having more positive qualities than the person may actually have. Idealization involves creating an ideal impression of another person, object, or situation by highlighting their positive qualities and dismissing the negative ones. Idealization is a defense mechanism that helps a person adjust the way in which they perceive the world around them, leading them to make judgements that fully support those concepts. For example, people often think of their childhoods in terms of good memories, idealizing recollections of vacations or other positive moments as happier times, but fail to recollect memories of arguments and hard times during those periods.


Aggression that is expressed towards others in an indirect passive way using procrastination.


Projection is a primal form of paranoia. It reduces a person’s anxiety by allowing them to express undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them. Projection attributes the person’s neglected unacceptable or unwanted thoughts and emotions to another individual. This level includes severe prejudice, severe jealousy, and hypervigilance.

Projective Identification

In this defense mechanism, the object of projection invokes the precise thoughts, feeling, and behaviors projected.


Somatization is the transformation of negative feelings towards others into negative feelings towards oneself, pain, illness, and increased anxiety.

Level 3: Neurotic

Level 3: Neurotic

Such defenses have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one’s primary style of coping with the world.

Neurotic Defense Mechanisms


Shifting an emotion or concentration of mental energy from one thought, object, or situation to another that mirrors the original in some aspect. Displacement allows for a significant representation of the original thought, object, or situation through one that requires less effort or induces less distress. Displacement happens when a person represses emotions, affection, fear, impulses or thoughts they have for another person. Accepting that they have these feelings or demonstrating them is irrational or socially unacceptable, so the mind kicks in to prevent them from being converted into actions. Instead, the feelings are displaced towards another target that the mind find “ok” to express such feelings for. For example, you might be upset at your neighbor because they refuse to trim the tree that is overgrown between your properties, but you feel that you cannot act in a hostile manner towards your neighbor because it will have consequences. Instead, you act out towards your partner or best friend without justification.


Dissociation describes anything from a mild detachment from immediate surroundings to severe detachment from physical and emotional reality. When a person dissociates, they have a temporary, yet drastic change in character or sense of identity in an effort to avoid emotional distress. The person loses sense of awareness and has insane reactions to their surrounding environment for a period of time. People who resort to dissociation as a defense mechanism may feel separated from the outside world and reality, almost as if they existed in another realm. Dissociation can help people to cope with undesirable situations by sort of removing themselves from them, and entering a state of daydreaming, staring blankly, letting their mind wander. Think of it as being separated from the world by a veil.


Exaggerating or overdramatizing an illness for avoidance and regression purposes. Disapproval due to loss, feelings of loneliness, or unacceptable aggressive impulses towards others are transformed into self-disappointment and complaints of somatic illnesses and pain. When people resort to hypochondriasis as a defense mechanisms, they avoid responsibility, deflect inherent impulses, and evade feelings of guilt.


Intellectualization is when you isolate yourself by finding an intellectual element related to an anxiety-provoking situation, person, or event so as to distance yourself from it. When you intellectualize, you separate emotion from ideas, making your thoughts and wishes bland and not acting on them. In a sense, you avoid stressful situations by focusing on their intellectual aspect.


Isolation is separating feelings, the emotional and rational part, from ideas and events that evoke anxiety or are repressive. Also, social isolation is basically the absence of relationships.


When you use rationalization, you offer false logical explanations for behaviors or outcomes to situations to justify attitudes, beliefs, or behavior that may otherwise be unacceptable.

Reaction Formation

Reaction formation is used to convert unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings, or impulses into their opposite. It is the expression of the reverse of your feelings through your behavior and actions. When the urgent wishes of your Id are in constant conflict with the Ego and Superego, a person may devise a reaction to those impulses. This action is often the direct opposite of the demands, and may help counteract negative or unacceptable impulses.


Regression is reverting back to an emotional state where your unconscious anxieties, fears, threatening thoughts, impulses, and worries usually reappear. Regression is when a person reverts to behaviors they exhibited at an earlier age. Regression can be dangerous if the person reverts to a self-destructive state and cannot get back to their current reality. In the context of PTSD, regression generally happens under conditions of stress.


Repression is unconscious expelling or withholding of bad ideas, thoughts, or feelings from the consciousness in an effort to reduce anxiety. The conscious perception of instincts and feelings is considered blocked repression. Repression is perhaps the most significant defense mechanism, as repressed feelings and emotions may cause a person to resort to using other defense mechanisms. In order to live with feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt and many others, our minds repress the thoughts at the source of the anxiety, and instead of addressing them consciously, they are bottled up in the unconscious mind, later appearing in unexplained patterns of behavior or even symbolic dreams.


Undoing, the unconscious attempt to take back, void, or undo a thought, feeling, or action that resulted in guilt, shame, or other form of anxiety.


Withdrawal is a severe form of defense mechanism. It involves fully removing yourself from events, stimuli, interactions, objects, etc. due to the fear of being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings.

Level 4: Mature

Level 4: Mature

The use of these defenses enhances pleasure and feelings of control helping us to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, while still remaining effective.

Mature Defense Mechanisms


Altruism is the belief that one should have constructive and unselfish concern for others. It entails doing things for others for the simple desire to help, not due to obligation, duty, loyalty, force, or religious reasons. Altruism involves true selflessness, as the person chooses actions that benefit other people, regardless of motive or self benefit.


Anticipation can be a great adaptive mechanism. It is the capacity to perceive future danger and how it can affect you cognitively. It is a valuable tool in mastering conflict in small steps, as it allows you to anticipate danger and cope with it before it ruins your day.


A great defense mechanisms and my personal favorite as a PTSD sufferer. Humor is using comedy to clearly express uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, and ideas without any personal discomfort and without evoking unpleasant effects on others. Humor as a defense mechanism allows you to tolerate yet focus on what would otherwise be too unbearable to tolerate. Humor is an adaptive technique that helps us cope with tense and stressful situations by looking at the funny aspect of an event where we currently lack control. In a sense, humor serves as a buffer to endure certain difficult moments in life. In my experience, humor can also be a kind act, as it can help others better cope with their lack of understanding of your symptoms and the stigma placed on the disorder.


Identification is the unconscious modeling of one’s self onto another person’s character and behavior. The person models actions and opinions that influence others while searching for their own identity, or while trying to reach a personal, professional, or social goal. In order to placate a person we perceive as a threat, we copy aspects of their behavior, as imitating their mannerisms, phraseologies or language patterns helps us appease the person. In the case of victims, this defense mechanism is used to identify with the aggressor. For example, a person who is new to a town, a school, or a job may adopt the social norms and attitudes of the surrounding environment in an effort to seek acceptance and avoid being rejected.


Introjection is accepting someone else’s beliefs, values, and attitude as your own. For example, a person may internalize criticism from another person and believe their points to be valid. Also, behavior can be projected in the sense that a child can observe the parent’s characteristics and then replicate them.


Sublimation is a more adaptive mechanism because it transforms negative thoughts, feelings, emotions or instincts into positive actions, behaviors and emotions. It can be used to adapt to any upcoming anxieties. Sublimation allows you to rechannel any unacceptable primal drives with acceptable ones. It allows you to divert bad instinctual drives into personally and socially acceptable areas that can help channel prohibited impulses into constructive activities and actions.

Thought Suppression

Thought suppression is the conscious or semiconscious act of delaying attention a conscious conflict or impulse. Anything that could increase anxiety or cause issues is deliberately cut off, but not avoided.

Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic Thinking

Module 3: Catastrophic Thinking

Catastrophic thinking is one of the worst mental interference. For people with PTSD, catastrophic thinking happens when a person tends to always expect the worst out of a situation, person, or even an object. It generally comes after intrusive thoughts enter the mind, and the person doesn’t possess coping skills that would help consider other non-catastrophic possibilities. For these people, the response must be an exaggerated thought that doesn’t go in line with the cognitive reality of the situation. It’s an extreme mental misinterpretation of the surrounding environment.

Unmanaged anxiety can be uncomfortable, overwhelming, and negatively feed catastrophic thinking. This will affect the way you perceive and react to the world. The way that people with PTSD think plays a fundamental role in their ability to manage anxiety. Focusing on a worst-case scenario, that is, catastrophizing about present or future events and situations will increase stress and not allow you to act in a calm and collected manner.

Regardless of the nature of your trauma, understand that past events, especially negative ones, are not a constant in your life. They are adverse moments that took place in the past and served to shape who you are today. You cannot allow them to affect your present or dictate your future.

Clinging on to negative memories will only help feed PTSD’s intrusive thoughts into your mind. This uncontrolled thought invasion will make you perceive your surrounding environment as dangerous, resulting in the catastrophic thought process that follows.

Catastrophic thinking will then affect the way you react to people, situations, and objects because you are seeing the world through the lens of PTSD tainted by the negative memories of trauma.

Don’t let your negative thinking upset you. Instead, turn your misrepresentation of the world into a deliberate effort to stay safe and not one of living in fear. Learn to cope with catastrophic thinking.

Coping with Catastrophic Thinking

Coping with Catastrophic Thinking


Self-monitoring works wonders for people with PTSD. Use self-monitoring to increase your awareness of the effects that your thoughts have on your mood, emotions, and actions.

How to Self-Monitoring for Catastrophic Thinking

  1. Download or create a worksheet.
  2. Choose a question/answer format.
  3. Write down these questions to ask yourself in the event of a catastrophic thought:
    • Is there evidence this thought is realistic?
    • Is there evidence that it isn’t?
    • Have I had this thought before? What happened then?
    • Did I have this thought because I’m sad, angry or anxious?
    • If someone else had this thought, what would I tell them?
    • Is this thought something I do out of habit?
    • What is a different, more realistic thought in this case?
  4. If you can, write down and do it as soon as the catastrophic thought starts.

Answering the above questions will help you realize that it is possible to trace your path away from extreme negative ways of thinking and allow you to consider other less catastrophic scenarios.

Self-monitoring will help you realize why catastrophic thinking is a bad post-trauma coping strategy. It’s designed to make sure you are never placed in a dangerous situation again, but paralyzes you and leads to extreme anxiety, avoidance, and isolation.

The worksheet (found on the resources page), questions, and information collected will help you break the habit of catastrophic thinking. Answering the questions will teach you to be more flexible when considering your options.

How will you know it’s working? Well, you will notice changes like:

  • You are less anxious than before.
  • Your anxiety is not getting any worse.

You are less negatively reactive to your surrounding environment.

Grounding Techniques

Grounding Pointers

Grounding affords you the ability to come back to the present moment when your mind is wandering around during periods of dissociation.

Grounding Pointers


When practicing grounding techniques, try to always keep your eyes open so that you can focus on what is around you at that moment. This helps you regain control of your ‘now’ and present. It also helps to practice your grounding techniques outloud, as it allows you to better describe what you are seeing and doing.


It takes a village to raise a child, and retraining your brain can always use some help. Educating a friend, loved one, or coworker (someone you trust) on grounding and your need to rely on them can be very useful. With proper knowledge, these people can help you come back to the present if you are losing touch with reality. They can learn to give you prompts if they see your need for grounding, or can simply ask you to accompany them somewhere they know you can ground yourself.


Like everything in life, every skill you need to cope with PTSD and its symptoms requires practice. Tons of it. Grounding is no exception, and it’s a tool that gets better and more useful with more practice. Trying the skill at all times, not just when you are feeling out of touch with reality. This will help you tremendously, as it will arm you with the skill to use when you need them most.

Grounding Examples

Grounding Examples

EXAMPLE 1: Indoors

  • If you’re indoors, you can touch objects around you and use them as grounding tools.
  • Grab the first safe thing around you, a pen, a phone, a book...
  • Describe it: What’s the texture? Color? Smell?
  • Say it out loud: “I have a book in my hand. It has a protective cover. The cover is soft. The book smells like coffee because I spilled some on it this morning…”

EXAMPLE 2: Outdoors

  • If you’re outdoors,  you can touch objects underneath you and use them as grounding tools.
  • Use the closest surface near you, it could be grass, concrete, wood floor, carpet...
  • Take your shoes off and feel it…
  • Describe what you feel: How does it feel? Wet? Cold? Hot?
  • Say it out loud: “I am standing/walking on grass. It’s cool on my feet and kind of tickles. It’s dark green and it’s a little moist…”

EXAMPLE 3: Names, Names, Names

  • Think of names, any names that first pop to your head, say the out-loud if possible.
    • It could be animals (dog, cat, cow, horse, snake, lion, zebra, tiger, elephant, eagle, fox…)
    • It could be family members (sister Jenny, Brother Paul, cousin Travis, aunt Dana…)
    • It could be cities (Denver, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Austin, Sacramento...)
    • It could be flowers (rose, carnation, sunflower, daisy, orchid, dandelion, etc.
    • It could be countries

EXAMPLE 4: The Power of the Alphabet

Say the alphabet backwards. Seriously, just do it. If you make a mistake, start again. If you speak more than one language, chose a non-native language to say the alphabet backwards.

EXAMPLE 5: Breathing & Muscle Relaxation

Calm breathing and progressive muscle relaxation can you help to reduce some of the anxious and tense feelings in your body.

Intrusive Thoughts

About Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive Thoughts

People with PTSD Experience Stress All the Time. Symptoms of PTSD don’t arise unexpectedly, and you can learn to feel and predict them. Don’t let your brain convince you otherwise. Remember, they don’t just creep up without notice.

Your stress levels play a significant role in how your PTSD affects you. Learning to how to manage your stress to deal with your PTSD symptoms is one of the cornerstones of living a controlled life. Your control is rooted in handling intrusive thoughts. This is paramount in your healing journey. Intrusive thoughts will trigger PTSD symptoms that could worsen almost any situation.

Coping Strategies for Intrusive Thoughts

Coping Strategies for Intrusive Thoughts


Self-monitoring is one of the most effective methods to manage intrusive thoughts. With practice, you will learn powerful self-monitoring techniques to help you correct errors in thinking by bringing awareness to your thoughts and feelings before they take over.

Download or create the worksheets and stick to them. If you don’t collect valuable information, you won’t be able to draft a plan of action to tackle your PTSD symptoms. Take the time to notice patterns:

  • Situations that make your heart rate increase.
  • Situations that make your stomach feel funny.
  • Situations that cause muscles tension.

The information gathered in the worksheets will give you all the knowledge you need to become aware of situations that elicit intrusive thoughts and lead to catastrophic thinking. These sets, of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings don’t allow you to properly cope with and address other PTSD symptoms or safely process the surrounding environment.

You cannot address uncomfortable thoughts and feelings without first being aware of the specific situations that elicit them.

I have never met anyone with PTSD who was not dealing or had not experienced some form of intrusive thoughts. When you have PTSD, intrusive thoughts are your worst enemy because they come in thoughts, images, and mental impulses and they disrupt every single aspect of your life, and those around you. Managing stress is one of the most important components of tackling intrusive thoughts. High levels of stress make you perceive everything around you as threatening or dangerous.

Learning to be mindful of your thought process will give you an upper hand in controlling the unexpected, unannounced, and very much unwelcome thoughts. Learning to be fully aware in your present will serve as an alarm system for intrusive thoughts, giving you a chance to take action before they impact your emotions and behavior. Having knowledge of when intrusive thoughts kick in will help you control the catastrophic thinking that follows. It is one of the most valuable skills you can learn to manage your PTSD symptoms.

Self-Monitoring for Intrusive Thoughts

Self-Monitoring for Intrusive Thoughts

Self-monitoring is one of the most effective methods to manage intrusive thoughts. With practice, you will learn powerful self-monitoring techniques to help you correct errors in thinking by bringing awareness to your thoughts and feelings before they take over.

Create the worksheets and stick to doing them so you can gather valuable information to help you create your plan of action to tackle your PTSD symptoms. Take the time to notice patterns.

Did your heart rate increase? Is your stomach feeling funny? Do you have muscle tension?

If you do the worksheets for a week, and you do them properly, meaning, you collect the relevant information, you WILL increase your awareness of the situations that spark those unwelcome and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

You cannot address uncomfortable thoughts and feelings without first being aware of the specific situations that elicit them.