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Salud mental

versão impressa ISSN 0185-3325

Salud Ment vol.29 no.6 México Nov./Dez. 2006


Artículos originales

An empirical study of defense mechanisms in panic disorder*

Enrique Chávez-León1 

María del Carmen Lara Muñoz2 

Martha Patricia Ontiveros Uribe2 

1Investigator Mexican Psychiatric Association, APM. Universidad Anáhuac México Norte. Lomas Anáhuac s/n. Lomas Anáhuac, Huixquilucan, 52786. Estado de México, México. e-mail: <

2Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatría Ramón de la Fuente, México. Investigator Mexican Psychiatric Association, APM.


Panic disorder is present in 2.9% of females and 1.3% of males in the Mexican urban population; about two thirds of these patients have an associated depressive disorder. Genetics and psy-chosocial factors are intertwined in the etiology of this disorder. There are several studies related to the role of defense mechanisms in the pathogenesis of psychiatric disorders. Few studies of anxiety disorders have been conducted in Mexico, and there is little evidence about the importance of the defense mechanisms that are present in these disorders. In the DSM-IV-TR, defense mechanisms or coping styles are defined as "automatic psychological processes that protect the individual against anxiety and from the awareness of internal or external dangers or stressors. Individuals are often unaware of the processes as they operate". The purpose of the present research was to identify the differential use of the defense mechanisms in normal controls and in patients with panic disorder alone or complicated mainly with mood disorders, and the patients who responded or did not respond to psychopharmacological treatment.


The sample of this study comprised 48 consecutive outpatients with panic disorder from the Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatría, Ramón de la Fuente Muñiz. All of them were evaluated three times: first by a third grade psychiatry resident, in second place by a specialist in psychiatry and finally by one of the authors. After the patients agreed to participate, they completed a demographic questionnaire, the Hopkins Symptom Check List (SCL-90), and the Defense Style Questionnaire (DSQ, Spanish Version). To evaluate the intensity of anxiety and depression, the Anxiety Hamilton Scale and the Hamilton Scale for Depression were used in their first appointment. Patients were treated as usual with a tricyclic antidepressant, a benzodiazepine, or both, during an eight week period. Then they were evaluated again with the same instruments and scales.

The Defense Style Questionnaire (DSQ) is a self-report instrument of common defense styles, which are empirically validated clusters of perceived defense mechanisms. Subjects rate their degree of agreement with 88 statements designed to tap defense or coping mechanisms on a ninepoint scale. The DSQ is a widely used measure of empirically derived groupings of defense mechanisms ranking an adaptive hierarchy. A review of published studies, indicates strong evidence that adaptiveness of defense style correlates with mental health, and that some diagnoses are correlated with specific defense patterns (borderline personality disorder correlates with greater use of both, maladaptive and image-distorting defenses, and less use of adaptive defenses). For other diagnoses, the pattern of defenses is less clear.

The validity and the reliability of the DSQ Spanish Version were established before its application, in a sample of 261 psychiatric patients and controls. Two factors were obtained in the factor analysis. The first was denominated Mature Style. This category included: suppression, working orientation, sublimation, anticipation, affiliation, reactive formation, altruism, and humor. The Immature Style was the second factor; it included projection, acting out, repression, somatization, autistic fantasy, affective isolation and social withdrawal, inhibition, help rejection, splitting, undoing, consume, idealization, denial, projective identification, passive-aggression, and omnipotence. Higher mean scores indicated greater use of the individual defense mechanism and style. The mean scores for individual DSQ defense mechanisms and styles were calculated by adding and averaging the scores. The reliability calculated was .89 (Cronbach alpha) for the items cor-responding to the 25 defense mechanisms.

Axis I was ascertained reliably with face-to-face interview and a list of the DSM-III-R criteria. This group had 32 patients with panic disorder and 16 patients with panic disorder associated to mood comorbidity or alcohol dependence, in persistent remission for at least one year; 32 subjects were included in the normal control group.


The comparison of patients with panic disorder, pa-tients with panic disorder associated to mood disorders and controls, showed that both groups of patients used more projection, regression, inhibition, acting out, fantasy, splitting, help rejection, undoing, and reactive formation (p<.01), than the control group. The patients with panic disorder alone, used more somatization and denial (p<.01) than controls, but not more than the group of patients with panic and mood disorders. They also used less humor and sublimation as defenses than the control group (p=.03). The defense mechanisms of the patients who responded to pharmacological treatment were similar to the defenses of patients who did not improve or deserted. The only defense used more by the patients who responded to treatment was undoing.


Overall, the results of this study on panic disorder draw us to the conclusion that patients with this disorder make more use of immature and neurotic defenses than nonpatients. It is clear that maladaptive defenses, measured with this version of the DSQ, are related to mental illness and greater symptomatology, and adapative defenses are related to a better health. There was a clear difference in the use of defense mechanisms between the groups with illnesses and the control group. The clinical value of these observations depends on the relationship of the defenses with the symptoms. In this survey it is not possible to propose that defense mechanisms are the cause of the panic disorder, the reaction to the disease, or just a manifestation of the illness. The theory which establishes that the predominant use of certain defenses predisposes an individual to the development of specific illnesses, is attractive, but there is no evidence to support this hypothesis at present. In order to determine whether specific defenses or defense styles create vulnerability for the development of specific illnesses, the ideal study would be a prospective and longitudinal one; it would measure defenses in childhood, in adolescence, and at several points in adulthood, and would note whether there were significant correlations between preexisting defenses and specific illnesses. Such a study has yet to be under-taken. It is intriguing to speculate if an assessment of defenses could guide to treatment choices. Therapists do tend to consider diagnosis, ego strength, symptoms, behavior, and defenses when planning treatment, but a systematic assessment of defenses is not used as a basis for planning specific interventions. Although several studies have examined the relationship among defenses, alliance, therapist interventions, and outcome, more studies looking at a wider range of specific diagnoses are necessary.

Key words: Anxiety; defense mechanisms; defensive styles; major depression; panic disorder


El trastorno de angustia es un padecimiento frecuente en la población mundial. En México, 2.9% de las mujeres y 1.3% de los hombres lo han presentado alguna vez en la vida. Las causas del padecimiento probablemente involucren factores biológicos y psicosociales en interacción. Existe evidencia empírica de la participación de los mecanismos de defensa en la patogénesis del trastorno de angustia. En comparación con sujetos sanos, estos pacientes usan defensas inmaduras y neuróticas como proyección, pasividad agresiva, fantasía, exoactuación, devaluación, despla zamiento, somatización y escisión. En comparación con los pacientes deprimidos, utilizan más las defensas neuróticas como somatización, devaluación e idealización.


Fueron dos los objetivos de esta investigación: 1) Se determinaron las diferencias en el uso de los mecanismos de defensa entre los pacientes con trastorno de angustia, con y sin otros trastornos coexistentes, y los sujetos sanos. 2) Se compararon las defensas de los pacientes respondedores con los no respondedores al tratamiento farmacológico después de 8 semanas.


Los pacientes fueron evaluados por un médico residente de tercer año de la especialidad en psiquiatría. En un período menor a una semana fueron reevaluados por alguno de los médicos adscritos a la Consulta Externa. Si su diagnóstico definitivo era de trastorno de angustia se les invitaba a participar en el estudio. En la entrevista de evaluación se explicaba en qué consistía éste. Si aceptaban participar, se aplicaba un listado con los criterios del trastorno de angustia y se interrogaba sobre los criterios mayores para trastornos psicóticos, demenciales, anímicos, de ansiedad, adaptativos, somatomorfos y de uso de alcohol y sustancias, en el último año. Se incluyeron pacientes con diagnóstico de trastorno de angustia aunque tuvieran algún padecimiento comórbido pero que no hubieran presentado psicosis, demencia, ni trastorno por uso de sustancias durante el último año. Se aplicaron las escalas de Hamilton para Ansiedad, la de Hamilton para Depresión, la de Impresión Global del Médico y la Lista de 90 Síntomas de Hopkins (SCL-90) para medir la intensidad de los síntomas. En ese momento contestaron el DSQ de 88 reactivos. Tras 8 semanas de tratamiento farmacológico con su médico tratante, se les reevaluó de la misma forma. Ninguno recibió psicoterapia.


Los pacientes con trastorno de angustia recurrieron menos a las defensas adaptativas, como la sublimación y el humor, aunque más a la formación reactiva, que los sujetos sanos. A la vez usaron más las defensas desadaptativas basadas en la escisión (proyección, regresión, negación, exoactuación y fantasía), así como las defensas neuróticas (inhibición, somatización, aislamiento social, rechazo de ayuda y anulación). La presencia de un trastorno depresivo o por uso de alcohol en el pasado no influyó en la forma en que los pacientes con trastorno de angustia usaron sus mecanismos de defensa. Por otro lado, dichos mecanismos no influyeron en la respuesta al tratamiento farmacológico. Sin embargo, los que utilizaron más la anulación respondieron mejor a tratamiento y no desertaron del estudio.


La mayoría de los hallazgos fueron similares a los documentados previamente por varios autores en otros países. Las limitaciones metodológicas del estudio se relacionaron principalmente con las dificultades para medir las defensas a través de sus correlatos conductuales y actitudinales.

Palabras clave: Crisis de angustia; trastorno de angustia; depresión mayor; mecanismos de defensa; estilos defensivos

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To Professor Ramón de la Fuente Muñiz, doctors Alfredo Castillo Machado+, Alejandro Díaz Martínez, Gerhard Heinze Martin, María Elena Medina Mora, Yolanda Alexander Flores (translator)


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*Master Thesis in Psychiatric at the Annual Meeting of the APA, 2001.

Received: June 09, 2006; Accepted: July 07, 2006

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