As a life coach and therapist, I have encountered various challenges that individuals, myself included, face in their lives, and one phenomenon that often arises is functional freeze. Functional freeze refers to a state of psychological and emotional paralysis that inhibits an individual’s ability to fully engage in life, make decisions, or take actions. It can manifest in different ways, such as feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or unable to move forward despite having the capability and resources to do so.
This can show up during a confrontation with someone, before or during a presentation, or during any uncomfortable situation that triggers this nervous system response. I remember getting into a functional freeze state when my dog fought with another dog and I had to break it up and speak to the owner. I stood frozen, unable to take action, leaving the responsibility to a neighbor who helped de-escalate the situation. Once I came to, I started beating myself up until I researched and understood this response and how to help myself.
Understanding Functional Freeze:
Functional freeze can result from various factors, including past traumas, chronic stress, anxiety, or a lack of self-awareness. It often develops as a defense mechanism to protect oneself from perceived threats or overwhelming emotions. For example, someone who has experienced a traumatic event may shut down emotionally and mentally to cope with the distressing memories or emotions associated with the event. Over time, this response can become habitual and impact their ability to function optimally in various areas of life.
Ways to Work with and Through Functional Freeze:
Cultivate Self-Awareness: Developing self-awareness is a crucial first step in addressing functional freeze. It involves attuning to one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors without judgment. This self-awareness can help individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns or beliefs that may be holding them back. Through mindfulness practices, journaling, or talking with a life coach or therapist, individuals can gain insight into their triggers, patterns, and underlying emotions contributing to their functional freeze.
Practice Self-Compassion: Showing kindness and understanding while working through the functional freeze is important. Self-compassion involves treating oneself with the same kindness, care, and understanding that one would offer to a close friend. This includes acknowledging and validating one’s emotions and experiences without self-criticism or judgment. By practicing self-compassion, individuals can create a supportive inner dialogue and foster a more compassionate relationship with themselves, which can help them navigate through the challenges of functional freeze with greater resilience.
Gradual Exposure: Gradual exposure is a technique commonly used in therapy to help individuals overcome anxiety or traumatic memories. It involves gradually and safely confronting the triggers or situations that evoke functional freeze in a structured and controlled manner. This approach allows individuals to build resilience and develop a sense of mastery over the situations that previously caused them distress. A therapist or coach can provide guidance and support in designing a gradual exposure plan tailored to the individual’s needs and comfort level.
Create a Support System: Surrounding oneself with a supportive network can be immensely helpful in working through the functional freeze. This can include friends, family, or a therapist who can offer encouragement, guidance, and accountability. Having a support system can provide individuals with a safe space to express their emotions, gain perspective, and receive validation and feedback. It can also help individuals feel less isolated and more motivated to take steps towards overcoming functional freeze.
Set Small, Achievable Goals: Setting small, achievable goals can help individuals break the cycle of functional freeze and create momentum towards progress. These goals should be realistic, specific, and measurable. They can be as simple as making a phone call, scheduling an appointment, or engaging in an enjoyable activity. Celebrating small victories along the way can boost self-esteem and motivation, creating a positive feedback loop that encourages further action.
In conclusion, functional freeze is a common phenomenon impacting an individual’s ability to function optimally in various areas of life. By cultivating self-awareness, practicing self-compassion, utilizing gradual exposure, creating a support system, and setting small, achievable goals, individuals can work with and through functional freeze to overcome its paralyzing effects. If you would like to work with or through functional freeze with me or work through any other issue holding you back, I invite you to reach out to schedule a time to chat! I have 2 one to one spots available.
Melanie Shmois, MSSA, LISW-S, is a licensed social worker, holding a Master’s Degree (MSSA) from Case Western Reserve University and a B.A. in Sociology with a minor in Spanish. After spending 2 decades helping others achieve their mental and personal goals, Melanie worked with Master Coach Instructor, Brooke Castillo, and became a certified Life and Weight Coach through the Life Coach School.