Regression is an unconscious defensive process by which the patient reverts to a previous level of functioning, usually to an infantile stage that has remained a fixation point. Often one can read this former age by observing the patient's behavior, way of speaking and non-verbal signals. Sometimes the regressed patient stops communicating verbally and gives all the signs of a distressed baby at a pre-verbal stage. Other patients understand exactly the meaning of the strange question, "What do you think how old are you now?" and can answer it without hesitation.
This unconscious escape into one's past might serve to avoid something dreaded in the present or in the immediate future. Some patients regress regularly towards the end of each session as a reaction to the fear of being abandoned. They exhibit signs of helplessness as if to make the therapist feel guilty for observing the time boundaries, as if to communicate to the therapist what is expected of her.
Regression can occur, of course, at any age and outside the therapeutic situation as well. A toddler separated from his mother may show "... a return to babyish behavior. He wets his bed, masturbates, gives up talking, and insists on being carried,..." (Bowlby, 1953, p. 28).
Some psychoanalysts advocate and foster therapeutic regression as the best way of reaching the level of the early damage and start the healing process from there. "The tendency to regression in a patient is now seen as part of the capacity of the individual to bring about self-cure. ... The regression represents the psychotic individual's hope... "that this time there will be a facilitating environment helping him to develop and to mature (Winnicott, 1965, p. 128). Balint (1968, pp. 153, 159-172) explains that regression can be a therapeutic ally. He distinguishes malignant regression, which he also calls regression for the sake of gratification, from the regression in the service of the ego.
The single major difference between classical psychoanalysis and brief dynamic psychotherapy is that in BDP regression and the concomitant transference neurosis are discouraged by working through the transference responses as soon as they appear and thus strengthening the adult ego.
See also BDP, EGO-STRENGTH, PSYCHOANALYSIS, TRANSFERENCE, TRANSFERENCE NEUROSIS.