Unravelling the Numbing Grip of Functional Freeze: Reconnecting with Wants, Needs, and Emotions After Trauma

People holding hands, representing connection after functional freeze.

Functional freeze is when we become numb to emotions, sensations, and needs as a result of overwhelm, chronic stress, or emotional exhaustion. It occurs when we learn to disconnect from ourselves and disengage with the stress so the ‘shutdown’ freeze response becomes our main operating default when stress hits a certain level.

Externally, we may seem capable, fulfilling obligations, socialising, and maintaining a façade of normalcy. Yet internally, we’re merely going through the motions, driven solely by survival instincts. Our brains and nervous systems operate on primal impulses, accompanied by an ever-present undercurrent of anxiety. For some, this state becomes so entrenched that we forget it’s not permanent; there’s hope for change beyond this survival mode.

What is Functional Freeze?

Functional freeze refers to a state in which individuals remain capable of performing tasks and functioning in daily life, despite being stuck in a physiological response similar to the freeze reaction observed in animals under extreme stress or threat. This response is closely tied to the concept of the dorsal vagal complex within the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates various involuntary bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. It consists of three branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and the enteric nervous system (ENS).

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown 

The dorsal vagal complex is a component of the parasympathetic nervous system. It plays a crucial role in regulating bodily functions during periods of rest, relaxation, and safety. However, when an individual perceives a threat as overwhelming or inescapable, the dorsal vagal complex can trigger a response known as the “shutdown” or “freeze” response.

During a freeze response, the dorsal vagal complex reduces metabolic activity, heart rate, and blood pressure. This physiological state is characterised by immobility, disengagement, and a sense of detachment from the environment. While this response can be adaptive in situations of extreme danger, such as facing a predator, it becomes problematic when individuals remain stuck in this state for prolonged periods.

Functional freeze occurs when individuals experience a persistent freeze response, often as a result of chronic stress, trauma, or unresolved emotional issues. Despite appearing functional on the surface, individuals in a functional freeze may struggle with symptoms such as numbness, dissociation, reduced emotional responsiveness, and difficulties in forming meaningful connections with others. This can impact all areas of life, from relationships to employment and achieving goals.

What Causes Functional Freeze?

Functional freeze states can happen when you’ve been carrying stress or trauma in the body. As your nervous system starts to get overloaded signs of burnout and shutdown creep in.

Thanks to our autonomic nervous system, mammals have developed a response mechanism where, when faced with a threat and unable to fight or flee, they enter a state of freeze.

This freeze response serves as a vital survival strategy, offering protection under acute stress. However, prolonged periods spent in this state can pose challenges. While the freeze response is designed to be momentary, individuals often find themselves persistently engaging in activities, such as pushing themselves, seeking approval, and overworking, effectively overriding their natural physiological responses.

Humans possess a remarkable capacity for adaptation, sometimes to the detriment of their well-being. Many individuals live semi-functional lives, experiencing varying degrees of the freeze response without realising it. Although they may appear numb, disconnected, and disengaged from their bodily sensations, emotions, and vitality, this state is often perceived as normal.

How To Shift Out of Functional Freeze

Nervous system regulation is a process of constant work. It is not realistic to expect humans, in the bodies and the environments in which we live, to be perfectly regulated at all times. Having a toolkit for managing stress, recognising signs of the freeze response, and strategies to reconnect with the body is the key to managing overwhelm and reconnecting with the body.

Addressing functional freeze often involves interventions aimed at regulating the autonomic nervous system, promoting safety and relaxation, and processing underlying emotions and traumas. Therapeutic approaches such as somatic experiencing, mindfulness practices, and trauma-informed therapy can help individuals gradually release the freeze response and restore a sense of vitality and connection to life.

Recognising the Feelings of Freeze

The symptoms of functional freeze often manifest as a subtle yet pervasive sense of disconnection and numbness, both emotionally and physically. Individuals may find themselves going through the motions of daily life without feeling fully engaged or present. They might experience a heightened sense of vigilance, constantly on edge and unable to relax.

Other symptoms may include difficulty making decisions, feeling overwhelmed by even simple tasks, and a sense of being stuck or unable to move forward. Despite outward appearances of functionality, internally, there’s a profound sense of being trapped in a state of inertia, with primal survival instincts overriding higher cognitive processes.

Grounding Techniques

Engage in grounding exercises to bring yourself back to the present moment. Techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation can help anchor you in the here and now, reducing feelings of anxiety and overwhelm.

Gentle Movement and Regular Exercise 

Incorporate regular physical activity into your routine. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters, and can help alleviate stress and tension. Whether it’s going for a walk, practising yoga, or engaging in a favourite sport, find activities you enjoy and make them a regular part of your life.

Practice Self-Regulation

Develop skills to regulate your emotions and manage stress effectively. Techniques such as deep breathing, visualisation, or progressive muscle relaxation can help calm the nervous system and reduce feelings of anxiety. Techniques such as conscious breathing involve deliberate slowing of breath and deep inhalations, stimulating the vagus nerve by lowering the breathing rate. 

The Valsalva manoeuvre, exhaling forcefully against a closed airway, elevates vagal tone, modulating heart rate and blood pressure for relaxation and anxiety reduction. Humming activates the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation, while movement, such as jogging or yoga, releases energy and tension, fostering calmness and control amid trauma or hypervigilance. Experiment with different self-regulation strategies to find what works best for you.

Prioritising Self-Compassion

It’s crucial to recognize that the freeze response is the body’s instinctual mechanism to protect against perceived threats, indicating a need for safety. Therefore, transitioning out of functional freeze required adopting approaches that prioritise safety and self-care, facilitating a gradual return to a state of calmness and resilience. 

Embracing self-compassion means treating oneself with kindness amid such moments, acknowledging that the freeze reaction to stress is an unconscious survival mechanism, and not a result of a lack of strength, discipline or resilience. Rather than succumbing to self-criticism, offer words of encouragement and understanding, fostering a supportive internal dialogue conducive to navigating through the freeze state towards calmness and resilience.

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