Age regression occurs when someone reverts to a younger state of mind. This retreat may be only a few years younger than the person’s physical age. It could also be much younger, into early childhood or even infancy.
People who practice age regression may begin showing juvenile behaviors like thumb-sucking or whining. Others may refuse to engage in adult conversations and handle issues they’re facing.
Age regression is sometimes used in psychology and hypnotherapy. It can also be used as a self-help tool, or something someone does to reduce stress.
Keep reading to find out when age regression might be used and what it might achieve.
What is age regression?
Sigmund Freud believed age regression was an unconscious defense mechanism. It was a way the ego could protect itself from trauma, stress, or anger.
Still, other psychologists think of age regression as a way for people to achieve a therapeutic goal. It might be used to help a patient recall memories of trauma or painful events. The therapist can then help their patient heal properly from those experiences.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung believed age regression wasn’t a means to escape anything. He believed age regression could be a positive experience. It could be used to help people feel younger, less stressed, and more open.
With all these different theories for age regression, several types exist.
Types of age regression
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 age regression
Symptoms of involuntary age regression can include:
- 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
What is age regression caused by?
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:
- post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- borderline personality disorder
- dissociative identity disorder
- mood disorders
- major depressive disorder
- personality disorders
How to overcome emotional regression
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.
Working With a Therapist in Regressive Therapy
In different forms of psychotherapy, the patient might regress in certain ways. This can sometimes be a helpful and necessary way to rework maladaptive (inappropriate) defense mechanisms (including regression and acting out) in sessions with a therapist. It also can lead to more mature functioning outside of therapy sessions.
There are times, particularly in the face of certain types of trauma and personality disorders, in which regression can be overwhelming. These times may require active interventions by the therapist to help the person manage these regressions in healthier ways.
Hypnotic Regression Benefits vs. Controversies
The goal of regressive hypnosis therapy, a form of hypnotherapy (also known as hypnosis) used to actively help a person revisit memories and emotions from an earlier date. Some therapists feel this can help patients access repressed memories and help them deal with painful experiences from the past. There is considerable evidence, however, that memories accessed through hypnosis are not reliable.
Benefits of Hypnosis
General types of hypnosis may help with:
- Fears and anxiety
- Sleep disorders
- Post-trauma anxiety
- Smoking cessation (stop smoking)
Hypnosis that focuses on regression remains controversial for several reasons, including:
- False memory syndrome: Memories gained during hypnosis are not trustworthy and can unintentionally create false memories.
- Preconceived ideas: The therapist may have ideas or opinions formed beforehand about clients that cause false or leading suggestions.
- Lack of training: Opponents argue that people performing hypnosis are not all trained therapists. Without proper training, they may not have the tools to help if significant emotional distress occurs.
If hypnosis sounds like something you want to try, it is important to find a qualified mental health professional who has had appropriate training.
When Hypnotherapy May Not Be the Best Option
Hypnotherapy may not be appropriate for someone with hallucinations, delusions, or using drugs and alcohol.
Age regression, or when someone acts younger than their age, can be voluntary or involuntary. For children, involuntary regression is a typical and temporary behavior that is part of their normal growth and development.
Psychological theories about age regression in adults differ among some scientists, neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists. They propose a variety of possible causes, including a coping mechanism for stress, behavior related to certain medical or mental health conditions, and a state sometimes promoted in certain psychotherapies.
American Psychology Association. Age regression.
Williamson A. What is hypnosis and how might it work?. Palliat Care. 2019;12. doi:10.1177/1178224219826581
The Cleveland Clinic. Hypnotherapy.
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