A new client of mine who is thinking about starting a consulting business wrote me an email this week asking the following question (I share it with her consent):

“A former colleague reached out yesterday to ask me to help facilitate a staff retreat.

I felt excited for a brief second, then almost immediately, I went into freeze mode.

I spiraled into self-doubt and all sorts of ‘what ifs’—

‘What if my choice makes me miserable? What if I overcommit or under-commit? What if I do a terrible job? What if I say yes and am so bad that I burn bridges? What if I ruin my year? What if I say no and miss out on my only opportunity and never find success again?’

This request feels so high stakes. I just want to make a decision I can live with.

Part of me feels a pull to not even respond or even think about the project. But I don’t want to get stuck in freeze mode. What to do?”

Can you relate to my client?

Do you ever go into functional freeze, particularly when faced with important decisions or projects?

What exactly is functional freeze?

You’re probably familiar with the fight, flight, or freeze response—our human tendency to react to a threat by either going on the offensive (fight), leaving the situation (flight), or shutting down and losing the ability to communicate or act (freeze).

Less commonly talked about is functional freeze.

Functional freeze is when a person outwardly appears functional (sometimes, highly functional) on the surface—fulfilling obligations and completing tasks—but internally feels numb, disconnected, or like they’re just going through the motions.

Some people operate in this state for such a long time, they think it’s just part of their personality.

Signs of functional freeze include:

  • Ongoing, low-level anxiety
  • A pull to isolate and disconnect from people
  • Procrastination and lack of motivation to begin or complete tasks
  • Hyper-focus on a project and difficulty leaving work
  • Feelings of exhaustion, numbness, inertia, disconnection, dread, or overwhelm

Why do people experience functional freeze?

Functional freeze is a strategy for coping with trauma—including the trauma of witnessing global tragedies or caring for people in crisis.

When environmental stresses are overwhelming, but people see no escape route or way to change the situation, they go into freeze mode—shutting down, checking out, and disconnecting from themselves and others in an effort to cope.

Functional freeze occurs when a part of ourselves remains stuck in a freeze state or reacts to perceived threats by going into freeze mode.

It can help to imagine that rather than being one singular personality, you are actually made up of multiple parts, like passengers on a bus. When people go into a functional freeze, it’s as if a part of them is frozen, cut off, and numb. And another part is functioning and completing daily tasks.

Functional freeze is a common experience for people who care deeply about the state of the world, and it’s closely related to burnout.

Why Unfreezing Your Nervous System Matters

It can be challenging to make wise decisions from a freeze state, as we can become cut off from an awareness of our needs, desires, and other crucial bodily cues.

When we can shift out of freeze state and into a more grounded, centered state, we increase our chances of making decisions that honor our needs.

If you ever go into a freeze state, I want to offer you three micro-practices that I shared with my client to help her unfreeze her nervous system. I invite you to try these out.

My hope is that at least one will help you shift out of freeze mode, access your body’s wisdom, and help you make decisions that honor your needs.

One: Celebrate noticing.

As soon as you notice yourself going into freeze mode, know that this is a win.

The more we practice noticing our nervousness, self-doubt, or other scary feelings and pausing—and appreciating ourselves for doing so—the sooner and more easily we become able to shift out of freeze mode and choose a more helpful response.

So, first, give yourself a warm hug or a high five of acknowledgement.

Two: Offer yourself some soothing touch.

It can be nearly impossible to talk ourselves out of freeze mode.

Our human bodies often respond more readily to touch, movement, and physical warmth than to trying to convince ourselves to think differently.

Here are a few ways that you might offer yourself soothing touch that soothes your nervous system:

  1. Tapping the area above your knees, below your collarbone, or the outside edge of your hand with your fingertips.
  2. Standing up, swinging your arms in a twisting motion, and tapping your back with your hands.
  3. Gently place the palm of one hand gently on your opposite cheek and your other hand on your opposite shoulder, holding yourself in your warm embrace.

I invite you to experiment with each of these and notice what happens to the nervousness in your body.

If you’d like to be guided through the perspective-shifting and soothing touch practices—as well as other body-based practices for unfreezing your nervous system—I invite you to visit my free online video library—Somatic Practices for Social Change.

Three: Find a word for your sensations and emotions.

Most people don’t believe that naming their emotions helps them feel better. But fMRI research shows that when we humans find a word that matches our body’s sensations or emotions, our amygdalas—the fear center of our brains—become less active.

In other words, putting words to our feelings can unfreeze our nervous systems.

When we let our bodies know that we’re listening and give words to our feelings, it’s as though our bodies feel heard and can relax.

Look for words that describe the sensations you feel in your body—like numb, tingly, hot, cold, tense, tight, or pressure.

Make warm and curious guesses—asking, “Body, is this how you feel?”—looking for a sense of relaxation and a “Yup! That’s it!”

For support naming what you feel, I invite you to download my Emotions Wheels & Snsations List. Then, look for words that resonate—that prompt that feeling of relaxation and a yes! And notice what happens for your nervousness.

***

My client committed to pausing whenever she noticed herself going into freeze mode, offering herself some soothing touch, and naming what she felt.

Quickly, she discovered that while a part of her still felt scared at times, she was able to get grounded and centered enough to reflect on what she really wanted.

Supported by these soothing practices, she chose to take on the facilitation job. She was able to mostly stay out of freeze state as she engaged with the project, and she relied on these practices to come back to center when she started to feel scared.

In the end, she delivered work she felt proud of.

If you’re longing for additional, free support to unfreeze your nervous system, I encourage you to sign up for my free video library, Somatic Practices for Social Change.

I’m wishing you and your nervous system all the support you need!

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