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Menninger, K.A. (1954). Psychological Aspects of the Organism Under Stress— Part II Regulatory Devices of the Ego Under Major Stress. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 2:280-310.

(1954). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 2:280-310

Psychological Aspects of the Organism Under Stress— Part II Regulatory Devices of the Ego Under Major Stress

Karl A. Menninger, M.D.


The essence of my thesis is that the principle of homeostasis or steady state maintenance can be applied to psychological phenomena and psychoanalytic theory. The functions of the ego in receiving external and internal stimuli and in dealing with them for the best interests of the organism can be viewed as those of a homeostatic effector. The constructive and destructive drives of the organism must be so directed and modified as to permit the maintenance of a level of tension which is both tolerable and conducive to safe, productive and satisfying living and continued growth.

Events constantly occur which tend to disturb the adjustments and reconciliations achieved, and these stresses require the ego to improvise adaptive expedients for maintaining the integrity of the organism. Minor stresses are usually handled by relatively minor, "normal, " "healthy" devices. Greater stresses or prolonged stress excite the ego to increasingly energetic and expensive activity in the interests of homeostatic maintenance.

In its effort to control dangerous impulses under such circumstances and thereby prevent or retard the disintegrative process which threatens, the ego initiates emergency regulatory devices which fall into five hierarchically arranged and specifically characterized groups, representing increasingly greater degrees of failure in integration.

I believe that this conceptualization of the ego's regulatory function provides us with a broader frame of reference for understanding mental illness and will enable us to discard some of our vague, many-faceted, traditional terms in exchange for more definite and precise designations of process and stage. It also helps us to align our psychoanalytic concepts with general organismic-biologic theory.

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