Our body’s natural defense mechanisms are more than just a behavioral response. They’re an instinct. The fight and flight response has now been added to a third response, called the freeze response. All three responses are natural, but not everyone partakes in all three.
Our brains are heavily connected to the rest of our body through our nervous system. That’s why something like constant brain stimulation while playing an instrument or keeping busy can make us feel safer and less anxious.
If you find yourself freezing up, not knowing what to say, being stuck in place, or wanting to curl into yourself when something scary happens, you most likely are experiencing the freeze defense mechanism.
Let’s delve into this mechanism and what makes it unique.
What Is the Freeze Response?
The freeze response is one of the body’s natural defense mechanisms. It shuts down your nervous system, allowing you to freeze and try to avoid being hurt in a scary situation. Unlike the fight or flight response, it doesn’t involve you running away or starting a fight.
The freeze response becomes common in prolonged traumatic events. A long traumatic event could be anything from parental abuse to repeated harassment and stalking. When your body sees that you are unable to escape or fight back during a threatening experience, you will most likely move into a frozen and dissociated state, which protects you by allowing you to not have to “fully” experience the situation anymore.
You may have the freeze response defense mechanism if you fit the following criteria:
- You lose all thoughts and feelings when you are confronted and don’t know what to say or do
- You feel dissociated (floating above your body sensation)
- You drown out your background and turn your attention in on yourself until something stops
- You sit very still and can’t move your body
Although the freeze response is meant to protect us, it can sometimes stick around well after a traumatic or scary event has passed. In that case, you’ll most likely want to learn new ways of coping.
Can I Stop Freezing When Scared?
Freezing when scared is a normal response to trauma and fear. However, if you’re experiencing it when you don’t want to or need to communicate but can’t, you’ll want to change your actions.
It is possible to stop freezing up. However, you may need therapeutic help from a trained counselor, especially if your freeze response comes from a lifelong trauma.
Trauma therapists are available online and in-person to help 24 hours a day. They can help you understand your body’s response and lead you through simple exercises to work on leading yourself out of the stuck feeling.
We’ve outlined one of these activities below to help you learn to communicate your feelings in the midst of fear.
Describing Your Feelings Without Judgement
For this exercise, you’re going to want to be alone when you first practice it. Then, follow the steps below.
- Decide which feeling you are feeling out of the following: fear, disgust, love, jealousy, envy, sadness, joy, or anger. (You can be feeling multiple).
- Do not think about why you feel that way. Do not judge the emotion.
- Pinpoint where you are feeling the emotion in your body. Is it in your stomach? Your back? Your head? Your heart?
- Sit with your emotion, and label it for yourself. Say, “I am feeling sadness in my heart.”
- Do not try to think about the reasoning, and do not judge yourself for feeling the feeling, no matter how “negative” you think it may be.
Being able to name emotions and pinpoint where they are located in your body is the first step in better understanding yourself, which will help you develop communication skills in your relationships. This skill can also help you name your emotions for others and learn how to understand what you’re feeling.
If you’re unable to identify what emotion you’re feeling, look online at common areas of the body that each feeling is felt, and ask yourself if you’re feeling any sensation in that area.
What Can I Do to Protect Myself?
In the end, the freeze response develops to protect you from harm. If you are still going through a trauma or are in a dangerous relationship, there are ways you can help yourself.
First of all, if you’re experiencing domestic violence, be sure to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). They can help you find a way out.
We’ve outlined a couple more methods of protecting yourself during a freeze response below:
- Ask for space, and don’t take “no” for an answer. (If it’s unsafe to ask for space, try something else).
- Reach out to friends and family to let them know what’s going on.
- Start seeing a therapist or counselor online, when possible, to discuss what’s going on.
- If you’re experiencing an emergency, call 911 immediately or go to the nearest emergency room.
- Practice deep breathing exercises to regulate yourself to the point where you can move again. Meditation is proven to help you calm down.
If you’re still unsure about how defense mechanisms impact your mental health and life, check out BetterHelp’s advice column on defense mechanisms here: https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/defense-mechanisms/
Remember that hope is always on the horizon, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Your body developed your freeze response to protect you. Even if you don’t need protection anymore, thank yourself for all you’ve gotten through in your life. You’re doing fantastic.