Fixation and Regression in Mental Health

March 27, 2019
In a normal process of growth, there are times of evolution, stillness, and regression. What does this do to our psyche?

Fixation and regression can result from your relationship with your surroundings. In normal settings, living beings go through a natural evolutionary process until they mature. However, growth is not entirely linear. This means that even in a normal growth process, there are times of evolution, stillness, and regression.

The word ‘fixation’ is a reference to something that remains and resists change. It’s a halt in the evolutionary process. In other words, it’s when a person doesn’t move forward nor backward. It doesn’t mean that the evolution process is stagnant, but that there’s resistance to it.

Regression has to do with going back to something. For example, you’re in a more advanced stage of your life but, at any given time and for whichever reason, you can regress. Why do we experience fixation and regression? What does this do to our psyche?

“We do not always respond to shocks with regression. Sometimes, in the face of crisis, we grow up fast.”

-Naomi Klein-

Woman feeling pleasure.

Libido as an evolutionary factor

Fixation and regression are intrinsically linked to the concept of libido. In psychoanalysis, libido is psychic energy that focuses on obtaining pleasure. There’s a desire that pushes the subject to seek satisfaction. Said desire, or impulse, can be triggered by many things. It depends on each person’s evolutionary process.

Libido is an instinctual impulse. According to Freud, libido evolves in several stages. In each of these stages, gratification is fixed to specific areas of the body and to actions related to them.

  • Oral stage. Pleasure comes predominantly through the mouth. Breastfeeding is closely related to it.
  • Anal stage. It starts after weaning. In this instance, the pleasurable sensations are located in the rectum and adjacent areas. The biggest satisfaction is to hold and push. It’s associated with the satisfaction of giving or denying something.
  • Phallic stage. Pleasure comes through the genitals, basically through masturbation.
  • Latency stage. Libido diminishes.
  • Genital stage. Sexual desire intensifies while the subject goes from puberty to adulthood. Pleasure is obtained through sexual intercourse.

A woman looking at time.

Fixation and regression

According to psychoanalysis, fixation is a reference to the persistence of one of those stages involved in the libido’s development. Likewise, a person can be stuck in the oral or anal stage, for example. They’ll only show traits regarding the fixated stages, not others.

In contrast, regression means going back a few stages. It’s very common in firstborns when new siblings come along. It’s likely they’ll want to be breastfed again and wet themselves to get their caretakers’ attention.

Adults can suffer from regression. For example, a smoker or heavy drinker receives pleasure from an oral action. They’re looking for that stage’s lost pleasure.

Figure of a woman with doubts of a disorder.

Why does this happen?

Fixation and regression are defense mechanisms. They’re unconscious strategies to deal with bad situations when people don’t have any psychological tools to cope with them in a conscious manner. Therefore, fixation and regression are part of a problematic existence.

In other words, fixation comes when there’s too much indulgence or frustration in a stage. In each of the developmental stages of the libido, adults (especially the parents) play an important role. When there’s a deficiency in the satisfaction or limitations of the libido, fixation can be triggered.

Meanwhile, regression manifests when there’s a traumatic experience. Going back is a form of denial of that experience and the challenges it implies. Therefore, an adult can have a meltdown when reality doesn’t meet their expectations.

Kohut, H. (1989). Análisis del self. El tratamiento psicoanalítico de los trastornos de personalidad. Buenos Aires: Amorrortu.