What is functional freeze, and how can you soothe it?

Today many people are experiencing their day-to-day life in a way which doesn’t quite feel right, but does not fit within what we know of depression or anxiety. While they are able to carry on daily tasks, they feel disconnected from the world, lack motivation, feel numb and have a background anxiety which won’t seem to shift. It can impact so much in life, but you can’t quite place your finger on where it is coming from. If this sounds familiar, then you may be experiencing ‘functional freeze’.


Functional freeze

When we go through a traumatic event, or are triggered, we have a response which falls under the four categories of fight, flight, freeze or fawn. These responses are set up within us to protect us from predators and danger.

The freeze response is when we shut down in preparation to deal with the ‘attack’. A person in freeze state can lose the ability to communicate or act. They may physically change temperature, get heaviness in the body and feel stuck. It is essentially a form of ‘play dead’ response that happens without choice.

Often this defence mechanism is developed if you experience trauma that you can not get yourself out of, for example, a child who cannot fight an abusive parent or leave the home. Instead, the person learns to shut down, which also comes with disassociation, which is mentally checking out and disconnecting for protection.

We find that we can move out of our frozen state once the stressor goes away and our nervous system can reset to a relaxed mode. However, if the stressor does not go away and we remain in a state of stress, fear, or overwhelm for too long, then we can move into functional freeze.

Functional freeze is when you are able to outwardly function and complete daily tasks such as going to work, seeing friends and preparing meals, but psychologically you are still stuck in this freeze mode. It is often described as being ‘tired and wired’, feeling heightened anxiety levels and a lack of desire to do things at the same time.

Signs of functional freeze

Signs of functional freeze include:

  • Ongoing low-level anxiety – you feel a sense of fear or dread but can’t really place why or where it is coming from. It just always seems to be there in the background keeping you alert and unable to relax.
  • A desire to isolate and disconnect from people – you may find yourself avoiding calls or messages, even cancelling social plans and shutting yourself away.
  • Trouble taking care of yourself – you may find it hard to motivate yourself to do the daily things which help you feel better.
  • Procrastination and difficulty starting or completing tasks – there feels like there is so much that you want and need to do, but it just feels too difficult to do any of it. Instead, you can lose yourself in procrastinating or doing nothing.
  • Exhaustion and struggling to do physical movement – while you have nervous energy, your body feels too tired to exercise. You find yourself just wanting to stay in bed or on the couch.
  • You feel disconnected from your feelings and from the world – this is the dissociative part, as you shut down from your feelings and surroundings. You may feel numb or a lack of excitement for things that once brought joy.

While you may be able to function on a basic level, functional freeze can cause some issues in your life. You may struggle to engage at work and performance may slip. Relationships may suffer as you struggle to communicate or cancel plans. You may also find it difficult to keep on top of your health. While you may feel a sense of wanting to move forward, you ultimately feel stuck and it can be difficult to understand what is happening.

How to ease functional freeze responses 

There are ways to ease this response though, by moving our nervous system from the sympathetic mode (set up for danger) to parasympathetic mode (set up for resting). The following things can help with this.

  1. Connecting with nature – go for walks, get in the garden or swim in cool water. Regain your sense in the world.
  2. Light exercise – Yoga and stretching have been found to be incredibly helpful for easing trauma and drawing awareness back into the body.
  3. Breathing – regulating your breathing lets your brain know it can relax. Breathing in for four, hold for four and breath out for eight can help with regulation.
  4. Mindfulness and meditation – slowing down and connecting in the present moment. You can use a guided meditation or simply sit and draw awareness to what you can touch, see, hear and smell.
  5. Sing – get your favourite song on and let it all out. Singing with a group or at a gig has been found to be even better as it also builds a sense of connection.  

The world is becoming an increasingly stressful place, and for many people, this is having an impact. It may also be that you have underlying trauma which is holding you in a place of fear. Speaking to a trauma-informed therapist can help you understand yourself, work through your trauma and find the coping mechanisms which work best for you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Liverpool L31 & London NW1
Written by Katie Evans, BA(hons), Dip.Psych.
Liverpool L31 & London NW1

Katie Evans is a private practice therapist and public speaker, specialising in gender, sexuality, relationships and abuse. She is also a survivor of narcissistic abuse in a romantic relationship. Her experiences inform her work and her desire to speak out about developing a greater understanding of the trauma caused,

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