Psychological Survival Mechanisms - The 3 D's
Psych Survival 101: The 3 D's of Psychological Survival are Depression, Dissociation, Denial. In this post we explore how they help us deal with life and get us through painful times.
The 3 F's of instinctive survival: Fight, Flight, Freeze, have been studied and discussed extensively. In contrast, the 3 D's of psychological survival that we will share today have been denigrated, stigmatized, and relegated to the "crazy" zone in most parts of the world, and are termed as mental “illnesses”. Our minds have their own survival mechanisms to deal with psychological stresses and the harshness of reality. We have termed these as:
The 3 D's of Psychological Survival: Depression, Dissociation, Denial
Why do we need Psychological Survival Mechanisms?
The world we live in is extremely challenging to say the least, and with time it is increasingly chaotic, stressful, and overwhelming. Injustice, oppression, and general chaos are basic ingredients of everyday life in most parts of the world. Some may find a way to create an oasis in this harsh desert of Human life, yet for the majority, being a human on this planet remains an oppressive and stressful experience.
While civilization has helped reduce physical danger to a great degree for many people, there are still a large number of people who experience physical violence and danger regularly. To cope and deal with the physical dangers, we use three instinctual survival mechanisms: Fight, Flight, Freeze.
When we experience physical trauma, we know we can go to a hospital and treat our wounds. We need to develop the same attitude when dealing with psychological trauma. To recognize that we are stuck in psychological traumas will help us to realize why we all need psychological survival mechanisms. It will also help us to realize that these mechanisms are not defects or “illnesses” to shame and be ashamed of; rather they are helping us to get through life in whatever way we can — just like our physical survival instincts.
The reason we need psychological survival mechanisms is that our minds and hearts feel threatened and get traumatized, and we need ways to survive, cope, and deal with these situations and circumstances.
It will happen often that psychological survival mechanisms kick-in simultaneously with our instincts for physical survival, so they may overlap and they are related in many ways. Seeing them independently is primarily to recognize their existence, and instead of criticizing them we can appreciate their importance and how they are helping us. Additionally, if we only treat the physical trauma and ignore the psychological wound, we will remain psychologically wounded for the rest of our lives and the effects of that wound will become part of our lives.
Just like our physical bodies find ways to survive until we can tend to them with better methods, our minds do the same. Unfortunately, because of cultural narratives that stigmatize and shame mental health issues, we tend to get stuck in psychological traumas and never get to the healing stage. A lot of people don't even realize they are traumatized until they speak to someone who is trauma-informed and knows how to recognize the symptoms of trauma.
Aren't these just defense mechanisms?
There are many reasons for these mechanisms to kick-in and it should be understood that these mechanisms have varying degrees. Sometimes they may be present in lower degrees, in these cases they are not necessarily acting as full-fledged "survival" mechanisms, yet they are helping us to deal with life and reality and they may act as defense mechanisms at this level. They escalate into survival mechanisms when we are experiencing extended psychological distress and trauma and our psychological stability and existence is under threat.
We can again relate this to physical survival and defense mechanisms. Sometimes we fight just to defend ourselves, and sometimes we fight because we need to survive. Sometimes we flee because a situation is uncomfortable, other times we flee to save our lives.
Only calling these mechanisms as defense mechanisms is problematic for many reasons. One is that we diminish their importance and relevance when they are helping us survive. We make it sound like it just applying to a particular individual rather than an in-built evolutionary mechanism that we all need for our survival. And defense mechanisms come with added toxic cultural baggage — we condemn them and tell people to "be strong", "stop being so defensive", "grow up", "you can take a few hits, be brave, be strong", "don't be depressed", "be present", "you are delusional", "you are in denial, face reality", etc.
It's not just a defense mechanism, that makes it sound active and only purposeful in the present. A survival mechanism has helped you get where you are. It has been with you whenever you needed it, it has helped you and saved you in crucial times. It has stayed with you even after a situation has passed and you are suffering. Honoring its role is vital. Only then we can respectfully find an alternative without wasting our energy in battling these mechanisms.
The importance of this cannot be emphasized enough, these survival mechanisms exist because we don't know of better ways to deal with whatever is going on. Once we identify them and learn to deal with our emotions, our traumas, the reality of the world and our lives — once we can deal with all of this, the survival mechanism backs away automatically. They are present as long as you need them — appreciate them!
What are the 3 D's of Psychological Survival?
Depression, Dissociation, Denial are termed the 3 D's of Psychological Survival or known as The 3D Psychological Survival Mechanisms.
There are many other psychological survival mechanisms:
People pleasing / acquiescence / fawning
Righteousness (you got that right! Righteousness is a survival mechanism!)
Aggression: This may be active or passive, and non-physical, so it is complementary yet different from the "Fight" instinctual survival mechanism
In this article we will focus on the 3 D's as these are primary and underlying many of the above-listed mechanisms. The 3 D’s tend to be the most stigmatized and mistreated, and most commonly present in people. We tend to default to the ones below and then add the ones above for additional compensation as required. These other mechanisms have been covered in our follow-up post linked at the end of this post — because it is important to read the content below before you go to the next post.
While repression is commonly known as a psychological defense mechanism, I see Depression as an extension which can turn into a survival mechanism.
Why do we need depression? Why do we feel depressed?
As mentioned above, there are many reasons any mechanism may be present. We may experience soft bouts of depression as a regular part of life. When depression escalates and becomes a permanent state for an extended period, that is when it is acting as a survival mechanism. It is protecting us when we are feeling constantly overwhelmed by feelings and thoughts which we are incapable of dealing with.
Depression makes us stop feeling which can be a huge relief at some level.
Depression freezes us in a way so that we stop feeling and thinking about the causes of our troubles. It is meant to be a temporary pause, but unfortunately because of the world we live in, for many people it tends to become a permanent state because we never learn to deal with the underlying causes.
Taking pills doesn't unfreeze the emotions, it just adds another layer of numbness so we can ignore our depression and continue being functional in a sick society. Once we recognize the depression, it is our responsibility to take steps and learn the appropriate tools to deal with the underlying feelings and thoughts — this is something we could not do earlier because of lack of awareness and information, which is why the depression was needed and present. Now that we know that it is possible to deal with the underlying issues, we realize it is not the depression we have to overcome or deal with, we have to deal with causes and realize that:
Depression is only a symptom of whatever is going on underneath
If our therapist or psychiatrist is incapable of helping us to do that, which is more common than you would believe, we have to start looking beyond instead of getting stuck with ineffective solutions. The goal is not just to "fix the depression" and be functional, the goal is to heal the factors that caused us to be depressed so we return to our natural functional flowing state.
When we are equipped, we can feel safe to lift the curtain of depression and peer underneath at the difficult emotions and thoughts which seemed unsurmountable earlier. Once we know how to heal our emotions, we no longer need to repress, we no longer need to stay depressed — we can unblock and continue moving in life.
While depression simply freezes our thoughts and emotions to give us a pause, Dissociation goes a step further and "takes us out" of the situation. It doesn't do that by fleeing physically from the situation. In dissociation, our minds turn off and our consciousness checks out of the body.
This, again, is meant to be a temporary survival mechanism when the present circumstance is too traumatic to stay present. Like depression, this too can become a permanent state where people "check out" and don't return or return only intermittently or partially. In this case a person is not just numb, they are also not fully present.
It differs from depression because in depression we remain present while our painful feelings and thoughts are muted, in dissociation, we are not even present.
In advanced cases of dissociation such as depersonalization and derealization, a person may believe it is dangerous to be themselves or that they are bad or evil, and this can be caused by being subjected to persistent heavy criticism in early life.
Whatever the reason, if you believe it is not ok to be you, it is common to dissociate from your authentic essential self and adopt a "pleasing persona" that conforms to the expectations of others — in other words, to be a people-pleaser is also a form of dissociation — one that a lot of people experience to some degree.
Healing from a dissociative state can be much more challenging because we are convinced that it is too unsafe to return or to be ourselves. Becoming whole requires creating a safe environment in a sustainable way where we start trusting and feeling safe to be ourselves. It is important to start by finding a space where you can feel safe and comfortable to be authentic just for some amount of time on a regular basis, this can help to reintegrate the dissociated parts and become whole again. Once you have done that and learned to set boundaries, you can carry this new state into other situations and you can create a feeling of trust and safety wherever you go.
Finally we come to the most common of all survival mechanisms, one which every human experiences to some degree: Denial. We all have filters and veils that protect us from the unpleasant and harsh nature of reality. No matter how keen and intent we claim to be on "being real", we are constantly distorting and dismissing reality at deep unconscious levels.
According to some mystics we must consider ourselves fortunate to have this vital survival mechanism, for we would be destroyed were this to be taken away and our minds exposed to the reality as it is. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility to shed our filters one by one to integrate each layer of reality as it unfolds in our development.
This is the toughest of all survival mechanisms to overcome — primarily because there are parts of us that are living and satisfied with the illusions. When confronted with the reality, all parts of us that are attached to the related illusions will die. And these parts, just like every other living being, wish to live, and they will do everything they can do to survive — twist, lie, manipulate our own thoughts and feelings — just to live another day. Because, who doesn't want to live? Even if it is parts of us that are attached to illusions, they feel as justified to live and survive as any other living being.
Acknowledging that reality will kill these parts that are attached to illusions is an important step if you want to overcome denial. Only then will you be able to overcome the denial of how challenging this task is in reality. When you have to deal with your own parts sabotaging and manipulating you, it is easy to dismiss and deny and pretend that it is not happening. We will tell ourselves "I don't need it",or "I have already done the work and I am enlightened and real". Denial is multi-layered, you can be in denial about being in denial about being in denial...
Believing you are ultimately enlightened is one of the deep illusions that many awakened beings carry. Realizing that is humbling, and gives a deeply compassionate understanding of arrogance. Arrogance is a complementary survival mechanism — believing that you know what is going on and that you know more than others and that you are better than others, is arising from deep insecurity which most are too afraid to even acknowledge, let alone confront and heal it. Righteousness goes hand-in-hand with Denial and Arrogance. We will cover these in more depth in our next post.
Denial is extremely tricky because it is literally a matter of life and death for the part that is attached to the illusion. If we deny the reality of that parts’ survival, there is no hope of accepting the reality of whatever that part is covering up.
What to do with all this theory?
Learn to materialize theory into practice. Everything I have shared is from personal experience. I went through severe depression-anxiety, depersonalization and derealization (DPDR), and like everyone, denial which I deal with even today. I learned to heal the depression and DPDR by healing the underlying traumas, and denial is an eternal work in progress. I can say from experience, anyone can heal. I have done it myself and helped many others on their journey of self-empowerment and consciousness development.
I now help people to develop and heal their consciousness by teaching techniques to connect with their own power and compassion. I offer courses that focus on integrating the complementary forces of Power & Compassion to Amplify Your Impact and Self-Love. The next course on Empowering Yourself & Others is starting this Saturday. You can also schedule a free 1-1 call with me to discuss your situation at any time.
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Continue reading about the other psychological survival mechanisms in our follow-up post: