Age regression can be an involuntary or voluntary reaction to stress and trauma. Here’s what to know about it.
Think back to when you were a child: what were some of the things you used to do to self-soothe when you were scared or anxious?
Did you suck your thumb or hide under the bed? Maybe you covered your ears and closed your eyes? Or started to whine until someone paid attention to you in the way you wanted?
As a child, these behaviors are expected. However, we tend to grow out of them as we age, enter adulthood, and learn more effective and age-appropriate ways to relieve stress.
But sometimes, people revert to a younger state of mind and re-adopt some of these juvenile behaviors. This is called age regression.
“Age regression is a term that is used to describe an individual’s reversion of their mental state to a younger one,” explains Bryan Bruno, psychiatrist and medical director of Mid City TMS in New York City. “Age regression may only set the individual’s mind back a few years, but in some cases, it may take the individual’s mind back to childhood or even infancy.”
This reversion can happen at any age — though, in children, it is relatively common and usually temporary.
“Generally, [age regression] is a defense mechanism,” explains psychologist Cynthia Halow. “People regress as a form of escape: they want to get away from the realities of their current life [and] they tend to revert to a point in their life when they felt safe, comfortable, and secure.”
It can also be an intentional coping mechanism, she adds.
Generally, there are two broad types of age regression: involuntary and voluntary.
Involuntary age regression
Involuntary age regression is when you are unconsciously reverting to a younger state of mind; you did not choose to engage in this behavior.
Some people intentionally regress to a younger state of mind as a way to block out anxiety, difficult feelings, or personal problems as a self-help or self-soothing strategy.
That said, if you do this regularly, you might want to speak to a therapist to make sure it’s not a sign of a larger mental health issue and to learn to do it safely.
Age regression can also be used as a therapeutic technique in conjunction with hypnotherapy.
“[This] therapy allows patients to relive earlier memories and experiences,” explains Bruno. “It is often done to help patients resolve issues in their past and confront memories that may be harming their present mental health.”
However, some therapists believe that this practice could lead to the creation of false memories — so as a therapy technique, it’s somewhat controversial.
Symptoms of involuntary age regression
- being mute
- using baby talk
- curling up in the fetal position
- hugging a comfort object like a stuffed animal or blanket
- having a temper tantrum
Symptoms of voluntary age regression could include:
- sucking on your thumb or a pacifier
- playing with kid’s toys
- using children’s utensils or sippy cups
- creating a space filled with childlike objects
- wearing kid’s clothes
Both involuntary and voluntary age regression can be triggered by stress, fear, insecurity, or trauma.
Unconscious age regression can also be a symptom of certain illnesses, neurological conditions, or mental health conditions, including:
Treatment for involuntary age regression often depends on how old you are and what is causing the age regression.
For example, explains Bruno, “In children, the behavior is typical, and most often a temporary reaction to stress or trauma.” It generally goes away on its own, especially if you provide them with care, love, and attention.
But for adults, he says, “the most effective method in treating age regression is to identify its root cause.”
In other words, treatment often involves determining if it is a symptom of a larger mental health condition, then treating that condition.
One of the most effective ways to treat age regression is to speak with a therapist. Regardless of the root of your emotional regression, a therapist will work with you to understand your defense mechanisms and emotional triggers, and help you find healthier ways to cope.
Age regression is a reaction to stress, anxiety, or trauma. It can be voluntary, a way to self-soothe when you’re feeling overwhelmed, or involuntary, a potential symptom of a larger mental health issue.
If you’re experiencing age regression, the first step to consider is reaching out to a therapist — they can help you figure out why it’s happening and the best next steps to take.