Regression is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person abandons age-appropriate coping strategies in favor of earlier, more childlike patterns of behavior. This regression is a form of retreat, bringing back a time when the person feels safe and taken care of.

The following scenarios are examples of regressive behavior:

  • After the divorce of his parents, a 10-year-old begins wetting the bed.
  • A college student adjusting to her new stressful life in the dorm may begin sleeping with a childhood stuffed animal.
  • After her first romantic breakup, a teenager may begin sucking her thumb in order to soothe herself.
  • An adult suffering from a mental breakdown may begin to rock back and forth in the fetal position.

To a certain degree, some mild regressive behaviors are considered harmless and do not require therapy. However, people with complex or traumatic childhoods may not have matured properly through all the stages of growth and may continue to act out in destructive ways.

Austrian-British psychoanalyst Anna Freud, the sixth and youngest child of Sigmund Freud, was the first to propose that people tend to act out the stage in which their mind is stuck. A person could be stuck, or “fixated,” she believed, in one of three psychosexual stages: the oral fixation phase, the anal fixation phase and the phallic fixation phase. The phase in which a person is fixated has a great affect on behavior.

When stuck in the oral fixation phase, for example, a person under a lot of stress might begin chain smoking, overeating or become verbally abusive. If someone is stuck in the anal fixation phase, he may become exceptionally or even ruthlessly clean and orderly, or he could go in the opposite direction and become terribly sloppy and messy. A person with a phallic fixation can develop conversion hysteria (when physical symptoms appear from psychological conflict) and act out in sexual impulses.

Example: After a stressful day, a 10-year-old boy reverts to his childhood habit of thumb-sucking.