6 Ways to Stop Freezing Up as a Defense Mechanism

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This article was developed via a partnership with BetterHelp.

Defense mechanisms are our mind’s way of protecting us from harm. Humans had exhibited defensive behaviors since the beginning of time when it was necessary to protect themselves and the group that they lived in. It’s one way we stay healthy in the mind and body. 

Unfortunately, the defense mechanisms we develop as an instinctual form of self-preservation and group preservation do not always serve us throughout life. If you’ve been through a difficult event, you may begin to react defensively without meaning to. 

If your defense mechanism tends to be freezing when something goes amiss, you may be wondering how you can stop it. Here are six ways to learn how to move forward and stop freezing up in scary situations. 

Practice Setting Boundaries

Healthy boundaries can make all the difference between having a defensive reaction and feeling safe. Often, people freeze up because they feel trapped, scared, or not respected. If you aren’t setting boundaries but expect them to be followed, you might find yourself getting into a freeze response quite often since other people can’t read your mind. 

The good news is that setting boundaries is possible for anyone. These are a set of rules/values that you live by for yourself, and they also dictate how you allow yourself to be treated. 

For example, if you don’t want your partner to yell when you have a disagreement, being able to set that boundary from the beginning and leave the situation if it ever happens is essential. Following through on your word is also essential for this to work. 

Figure Out the Cause of the Reaction

You’ll want to figure out what your freeze response is responding to. It could be a specific trauma memory from childhood, or it could be something in your current life that is truly unsafe, such as an abusive partner. 

If you can pinpoint that the reaction does, in fact, come from past trauma, you may be able to heal it with help from a trauma therapist. If your body is freezing up due to real danger, the only way to heal the reaction is to leave the dangerous situation and get help. 

If you are in a domestic violence situation, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) to get help now. If you are in an emergency, call 911. 

Go to Counseling

For those who have developed a freeze defense mechanism from long-term trauma, a traumatic event, or a poor relationship from your past, you may find a lot of relief in counseling. 

A trauma counselor or talk therapist can help you discern exactly why you are freezing up in defense of things that scare you and why this once served you. 

For example, you may have used the freeze response as a child to dissociate from your body and not experience what was happening to you. You could’ve also used it to hide or make quiet footsteps that someone in the house wouldn’t hear. 

These responses are often full of a lot of fear. However, you’re not stuck with this forever. Anyone can heal from trauma and fear. It just takes a little bit of time and patience. 

You can also opt for an online counselor instead of one that you visit in person. Online counselors offer the same support over video chat, phone calls, or chat messages. You can find any type of therapist with any specialty online, and you don’t even have to leave your home. 

Learn to Ask for Space When Needed

One way of setting boundaries is by asking for space when you need it. All humans need alone time sometimes. Although we are social creatures, being alone allows us to refresh our minds and bodies, think about how we feel, and assess all situations with other people. 

If we are constantly spending time next to someone else, arguments can increase, and codependency can start to form. 

If you are finding yourself freezing up when you need to be having an important conversation, it might mean that you are not ready to talk about it. You have the right to ask the other person for some time and space to think before you have the conversation. When you are ready, you can bring the issue to them and let them know. 

Avoid People Who Are Unsafe

If you’re around people who are not safe for your mental health, it is very likely that your defense mechanisms will be activated. One of the easiest ways to stop feeling frozen is to end relationships with those who hurt us and put us down. Even those who do not understand you or continue to have a rocky relationship with you may not be good for you. 

It takes a lot to be able to leave the life of someone you care about, especially when they are hurting you. If you need help figuring out if the person in your life is unsafe, counseling is probably the best bet for you. A therapist will be able to work you through your unique and complex situation to help you come to the right answer. 

Avoid Judgment

Avoid judging yourself for the way you react to fear and stress. Everyone has a defense mechanism. Some people may get angry and fight when scared. Others may run away. If you freeze, that’s just another way of trying to take care of yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re broken or weird. If someone else gets mad at you for it, that is not your problem. 

The end goal is to reduce the freeze response so you can allow yourself to communicate freely and feel safe in your own body. Do this for yourself above all else, and make sure you try to bounce off of any judgmental words you assign to yourself by explaining to yourself why you have this defense mechanism in the first place. 

If you were in true danger, it might just save your life someday.  


Now that you’ve learned about the freeze response, you may be interested in learning more about the other types of defense mechanisms that humans exhibit. Check out this website for more information.