From what I’m seeing in my coaching practice, an ever-increasing number of people seem to be living in what we call a ‘functional freeze’.

In fact, when I look at the stats for my videos and other content, searches for the term ‘functional freeze’ are among the highest.

So, I thought I’d better write an article about it! Today, I’m exploring functional freeze, its causes in our modern world, and how it manifests.

Click here to watch the extended YouTube Version of this article. In it, I discuss the autonomic nervous system, including both the sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects, as well as the fight, flight, freeze stress response. I also discuss five simple but effective coping strategies and interventions to help overcome functional freeze.

Understanding Functional Freeze

Functional freeze is linked to the ‘freeze’ response governed by the sympathetic nervous system. It is a state where you feel stuck or paralysed, unable to respond appropriately to a given situation.

Unlike the fight-or-flight response, which is characterised by action, functional freeze is marked by a state of immobility. It can manifest in decision-making, problem-solving, emotional expression, and interpersonal interactions, hindering adaptive responses to challenges.

Causes Of Functional Freeze

1.     Trauma and Past Experiences

Underlying Trauma: Past traumatic experiences, especially those involving a sense of powerlessness or threat, can lay the groundwork for functional freeze. The nervous system may react strongly to stimuli reminiscent of past trauma, inducing a freeze response even in non-threatening situations.

Unresolved Issues: Unresolved trauma or unprocessed emotions from the past can contribute to an overactive stress response, making you more prone to functional freeze.

2.     Overwhelm and Chronic Stress

High Stress Levels: Chronic stress or overwhelming situations can overload the nervous system, leading to a freeze response as a way to cope with the perceived threat. The continuous activation of the stress response can create a heightened state of alertness, making it difficult to relax and engage effectively.

3.     Fear of Failure or Judgment

Perfectionism: A fear of making mistakes or facing judgment can trigger a freeze response. Individuals who strive for perfection may feel intense pressure to avoid errors, hindering their ability to make decisions or take action.

Negative Self-Talk: Internalising negative self-talk and a fear of failure contribute to a heightened state of anxiety, making it challenging to navigate situations with confidence.

4.     Lack of Autonomy and Control

Micromanagement: Being subjected to micromanagement or feeling a lack of control in your role can contribute to functional freeze. A sense of being excessively monitored or restricted inhibits autonomy and creativity.

Feeling Powerless: A perceived lack of agency or powerlessness in decision-making processes can trigger the freeze response, as you may feel your actions won’t make a difference.

5.     Cognitive Overload

Information Overload: Excessive information or cognitive overload can overwhelm the brain, leading to a freeze response. The inability to process and prioritise information effectively hampers decision-making and problem-solving.

Multitasking Demands: Juggling multiple tasks or responsibilities without adequate support can lead to cognitive overload, impeding the ability to function optimally.

Manifestations of Functional Freeze

1.     Decision-Making Paralysis

If you are experiencing functional freeze, you may find it challenging to make decisions, even in seemingly straightforward situations. The fear of making the wrong choice or facing potential consequences contributes to decision-making paralysis.

2.     Impaired Problem-Solving Skills

Functional freeze can manifest as impaired problem-solving skills. You may struggle to analyse situations, weigh options, and formulate effective solutions due to the heightened state of stress and immobility.

3.     Emotional Shutdown

Emotional expression may be compromised in the face of functional freeze. You may experience emotional shutdown, where the range and depth of emotions become limited, leading to a perceived numbness or detachment.

4.     Avoidance Behaviours

Functional freeze often prompts avoidance behaviours as a coping mechanism. To circumvent the perceived threat, you may steer clear of challenging situations, conversations, or responsibilities.

5.     Procrastination

Procrastination is a common manifestation of functional freeze. The fear of making mistakes or facing failure can lead you to postpone tasks, creating a cycle of avoidance and increased stress. This can also be exacerbated by the lack of energy often experienced in a frozen state.

If you’re in functional freeze, you will likely find it difficult to do anything other than the bare minimum necessary to survive.

One Final Thing…

When I work with clients who have been in functional freeze for a while, I know they’re starting to emerge out of it when they show interest in doing things other than merely surviving.

These are typically never big actions; you might miss them if you weren’t looking out for them. But as soon as they tell me they’ve started doing the following types of things after months of simply ‘going through the motions’, I know that they’re moving into the parasympathetic, rest and digest, part of their nervous system:

  1. Doing household tasks that they’ve been procrastinating over for a long time, such as clearing out a wardrobe, kitchen cupboard, drawer or sorting out clothes to take to the charity shop. It is important to note that they don’t do these things begrudgingly or out of a sense of duty! They want to do them and feel so much better afterwards.
  2. Buying a small, seemingly frivolous item just for them, like a scented candle, a new journal, a new water bottle
  3. Arranging to meet up with a friend they haven’t seen for a long time
  4. Booking a massage, physiotherapy, or holistic therapies – which I highly encourage as these types of therapies release oxytocin, a biochemical responsible for making us feel safe. 

If you’ve been self-isolating, there’s a good chance you’re low on this important chemical, which will add to feelings of unsafety, sadness, and even depression and anxiety. We are social creatures. We need to be around people for both our physical and mental health.

The Wrap-Up

Functional freeze, rooted in the intricate play of the nervous system’s stress response, can have far-reaching implications.

Understanding the causes behind functional freeze and recognising its manifestations empowers you to navigate challenges with greater self-awareness. By implementing coping strategies, seeking therapeutic interventions, and gradually building resilience, you can begin to thaw the freeze and regain agency over your responses.

In the journey toward healing and growth, acknowledging the factors that contribute to functional freeze becomes a transformative step toward cultivating a more adaptive and empowered way of living.

What Next?

Again, click here to watch the extended YouTube Version of this article. In it, I discuss the autonomic nervous system, including both the sympathetic and parasympathetic aspects, as well as the fight, flight, freeze stress response. I also discuss five simple but effective coping strategies and interventions to help overcome functional freeze.

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