Evolutionary approaches to psychopathology: the role of natural defences

Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2001 Feb;35(1):17-27. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1614.2001.00856.x.


Objective: Psychoanalytic theories of the mind emerged in the immediate post-Darwinian era of the 1880s and 1890s. Since that time much has changed in both psychoanalytic and evolutionary theorizing. This paper explores recent evolutionary thinking on psychopathology.

Method: Relevant literature was reviewed.

Results: This paper outlines some of the common behavioural defence mechanisms and then explores ways in which they are represented in various disorders, with a focus on depression. This paper suggests that 'symptoms' can be related to the activation of evolved defence mechanisms to respond to losses and threats. Such will involve, for example, anxious arousal and heightened vigilance and attention to the threat, with the type of defence (e.g. fight, flight, submit, help seeking) being mirrored in particular symptom presentations.

Conclusion: Defences can become pathological when they are too easily aroused or prolonged, are arrested (aroused but not expressed) and/or ineffective.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Affect / physiology
  • Aggression / psychology
  • Arousal
  • Defense Mechanisms*
  • Feedback
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*