Defense Mechanisms: Your Power Moves


Arguments with others, feeling intimidated by another person or situation, near death experiences, or even being alone can trigger defense mechanisms. If your brain determines that a threat is imminent, its go-to response is to find a way to protect you.  The disturbing situation doesn’t have to be life threatening for a defense system to activate.  Really, the triggers are limitless. It doesn’t matter if the threat is physical, social, or emotional. What you perceive as threatening, will always be met with a defensive response. Becoming aware of your innate responses will help you to understand why you react to life situations or circumstances the way you do.

The Scoop On Defense Mechanisms

We have 7 standard strategies for defense. We don’t use each one every time. One strategy might be used more often than another, while others may never be used. Secondly, defense mechanisms are automatic responses. Consequently, we don’t really control which one is activated. Your brain defaults to a basic survival mode and decides for you. The job of your brain, in the face of a threat, is to keep you alive at all costs. Your brain is your bodyguard.

The 7 Keep-You-Alive Strategies

  1. Social Engagement: Connections with others increase our sense of safety; this is the most evolved defense strategy. For example, you go to a conference by yourself, and as you look around the room you’re feeling uneasy.  All of a sudden you see someone you know, and you begin to seek them out. Once you start chatting you become more at ease, and can take in the room with more confidence. That’s this.
  2. Attachment Cry: When we are in distress, we’ll send signals to another person, in hopes that they will help us. Ever felt like your partner doesn’t appreciate what you do around the house? Ever point this out by storming around the house? Yeah, that’s a cry for attachment. Notice me, I need you, I miss you, value me, I need connection–this is the underlying message. In some form or another, we all do it.
  3. Flight: Ever wanted to run away, or actually did run away, from a problem? Ever zone out because you felt too stressed out? Please let me introduce to you your flight strategy. The primary emotion that accompanies flight is fear. The next time you find yourself avoiding something, ask yourself what you’re afraid of. You’ll get the uncensored answer pretty quick!
  4. Fight: Pretty self explanatory in two words–road rage. Imagine that you’re driving and someone cuts you off. Feel a little angry and puffed up?  Anger and rage are the primary emotions when you’re in fight mode. You are literally setting up to fight for your life. Notice the next time you’re angry. Ask yourself: What is the threat that am I defending against?
  5. Freeze/Frozen: You feel tense all over. You’re unable to string a coherent sentence together, and feel generally ‘paralyzed’. Think of giving an impromptu speech to the experts in your career field. If you’ve never done it before, it’s possible you’d freeze up a bit.
  6. Flag: This is an intense level of being immobilized. Ever felt scared sh*tless; even to the point of not being able to talk, move, or look around? It’s like Elsa, from Frozen, zapped you with ice magic. You can’t do a damn thing.
  7. Faint: Of all of the 7 defenses, this is the most primitive. The loss of awareness and consciousness includes the inability to be aware of the surroundings or remember events. In effect, your body fakes death for survival.

Flippin’ switches

The point that’s often overlooked, is that no matter which defense mechanism is activated, the goal is always to ensure your survival. The next time you feel the need to run away, or feel a rage-aholic session brewing, try to take a moment to recognize that your brain just flipped on your survival switch. It’s not a bad thing. It is what it is; a survival response. It’s there because you feel threatened in someway.

However, when the switch turns on too often, it’s likely due to unresolved trauma. Trauma is the same thing as saying survival memories. Anytime your brain suspects there’s danger, it’ll switch on your defense system. With unresolved survival memories, the brain is uber aware, and interprets benign events as dangerous. Living like this can zap anyone’s life of vitality. You don’t have to live a response driven life. You can get control back. We’d like to help!

Book Appointment


Steele, K., Boon, S., Hart, Van Der Hart, O. (2017). Treating Trauma Related Dissociation. New York: Norton.

Written By

Picture of Robin Chamberlain

Robin Chamberlain

Robin, lead psychologist and CEO at Unstuck Psychological, utilizes her extensive experience to foster meaningful change in clients’ lives. Her approach combines kindness, evidence-based strategies, and creative expertise for effective therapy.