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Dealing with difficult patients: defense mechanisms

By Joan Monchak Lorenz, MSN, RN, PMHCNS-BC

Using Freudian concepts to understand human behavior, one could say that the ego often has a hard time pleasing the id and keeping the superego in check. So, it has developed a way to reduce anxiety through the use of ego defense mechanisms, those things that unconsciously block or distort our thoughts and beliefs into more acceptable, less-threatening ones.

Defense mechanisms (sometimes called coping or protective mechanisms) are, in short, used to protect the ego from full awareness of the situation. Their purpose is to help the person cope with a situation that he or she might not be able to handle.

Using defense mechanisms is a common human trait. We all use them. Some defense mechanisms are considered to be more helpful than others. Others may cause more problems for the person using them, in terms of creating unhealthy or unfulfilled relationships or losing touch with reality.

Most nurses are very familiar with defense mechanisms, having learned them early in their nursing school careers. Let’s review a few of the most common ego defense mechanisms and see how they apply to patient situations.

Rational problem-solving is not a defense mechanism. Oftentimes, rational problem-solving is enough to resolve an issue. Then, the use of defense mechanisms is not needed.

Tip: A well-rounded person, a mature individual, usually has little need to use ineffective or maladaptive ego defense mechanisms. However, when people are sick, have just been given bad news, have a loved one injured, or are uncomfortable for whatever reason, even the most well-adjusted resort to the use of defense mechanisms to help them get through.

Find some common ground

How do you relate to a person who is using a defense mechanism?

Joan Monchak Lorenz, MSN, RN, PMHCNS-BC is an HCPro author and contributed to the book Stressed Out About Difficult Patients.