How to Get Yourself Unstuck From Stress
It was a crisp October day in 2010. I woke up groggy—as one does after a four-hour nap. A long nap usually sounds heavenly, but I wasn’t on vacation. This wasn’t a pleasurable, indulgent siesta. I wasn’t sick or depressed either. By the time I got my bearings, I wanted to go back to sleep. I was feeling overwhelmed, beaten down, distraught, and sluggish. My midday slumber, the second four-hour nap I had taken that week, was my response to stress.
I was hiding from my life. A series of hurdles, responsibilities, and problems had stacked up and compounded, leaving me feeling like my stress was insurmountable and intolerable. Ignoring everything—emails, important phone calls, making dinner, even showering—was a coping strategy. Despite attempts at positive self-talk (“It’s not that bad! You can handle this!”), I couldn’t muster up enough energy or motivation to “do” life. I had shut down.
How I Struggled to Function Through Stress
My deflated spirit had contracted inward, and my bed and a pint of cookie dough ice cream were now sheltering me from reality. Even the little things paralyzed me: The postcard in Tuesday’s mail reminding me my son was due for his dental visit was just too much to handle, and I had burst into tears when it arrived.
My limbs felt heavy, as if I was moving through thick mud. My balance was off as well. I found myself clumsily bumping into the corners of kitchen countertops and walking into furniture. I couldn’t think clearly. I kept forgetting to get dog food and spaced out during most conversations. Words came out of my mouth in a monotone, hesitant slur.
Concerned, my husband and friends checked in on me frequently. I didn’t want to burden them with my hopelessness, so I forced a smile and assured them in the springiest voice I could fake that I was “fine.”
Why Stress Makes Us “Freeze” When We Feel Trapped
Scientists call this response to stress the freeze response. It happens when we feel trapped by our circumstances. In my case, my mind had convinced me there was no way out. Sometimes though, this caged feeling is closer to the truth, like when financial woes, an abusive spouse or a scary medical diagnosis have us physically trapped.
Freezing is an immobilizing response to stress or adversity. We aren’t able to move or interact with others when we land here. It occurs in a part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which I call “The Stillness System.”
The reason for my sudden lack of coordination was the naturally occurring opioids that are released in the body during the freeze response. They make for a nice analgesic from the pain but contribute to feelings of numbness, clumsiness, and a sense of being separate from one’s body.
How Freezing Helps—Temporarily
Believe it or not, freezing is your body reacting in a helpful way. It doesn’t feel helpful; it feels awful. It feels debilitating and embarrassingly weak. But it’s not. It is your body’s wise way of taking a pause to recalibrate and recuperate. Cocooning is self-care.
Yet, despite the protective and valuable nature of the freeze response, if you get stuck there for a prolonged period, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. And, let’s face it, we humans get stuck a lot.
The First Step to Getting Unstuck: Knowing Why We Freeze
We often get frozen in the freeze response because the very act of getting out is highly uncomfortable and scary. If you have ever experienced frostbite, you know the excruciating pain of unfreezing. That prickly, tingling, nervy sensation, an indication that blood flow has returned to our extremities, is similar to what happens when we begin to thaw out of a freeze stress response. We feel jittery, shaky, or unnerved, like we’re in fight-or-flight mode. That’s because we are.
The sympathetic nervous system is what I call “The Movement System.” At low levels, it is the source of our alertness, drive, and energy. At high levels, it is the source of frenetic states of worry and hypervigilance we often call fight-or-flight.
When we are in a freeze state, our sympathetic nervous system is turned way down. That energy volume gets turned up when we move out of the freeze response. Unfortunately, you can’t just walk over to a state of calm after being collapsed and shut down. That is not how our systems work. You have to go through fight-or-flight to get out of freeze mode.
How to Pull Ourselves Out of Freeze Mode
I wish, during my excessive napping phase 13 years ago, I had known that anxiousness is a sign of healing from numbness. It would have prevented me from retreating into my downtrodden state every time I felt a hint of restlessness.
Today, when I find myself stuck in the freeze response, I recognize that my return to feeling needs to be gradual and supported. When my stress response is no longer helping me, there are two things I need to get out of freeze mode: movement and connection.
Undulate to Regulate
If you find yourself paralyzed by stress, start with small, simple movements that wake up the middle of the spine, where the Movement System originates. I recommend trying gentle side stretching where you reach one arm overhead and tilt your body to elongate the sides of your torso.
You can also roll or rotate your spine. This can be done on your hands and knees or while sitting in a chair. The undulation of the middle back area will help to move you out of that soul-sucking stillness of the freeze response and awaken the arousal energy of your sympathetic nervous system. These movements should be slow and tender. Anything aggressive will send a message of danger to your nervous system and you will revert back to survival mode.
Walk and Talk
As you feel more enlivened, your body may be tempted to take on too much Movement System energy. This can feel like irritation, anxiousness, or panic. The way to avoid coming into too much fight-or-flight arousal is to dissipate the energy by connecting with others while you move.
Going for a stroll with someone who makes you happy is a perfect unfreezing activity. If you can’t meet in person, talking on the phone while you walk also works. I don’t recommend video chats (best to avoid walking into lamp posts or tripping over curbs). I would also avoid power walking; think of this as a meander. The slower pace reassures your nervous system that there is no emergency to attend to.
Discussing your problems and the stressors overwhelming you during these walk-and-talk sessions is optional. Chatting about any topic, as long as you are communing with a friend who is a source of positive connection, is the secret healing sauce.
Healing From the Freeze
Being in a state of freeze can be helpful and adaptive until it no longer serves you, and you find yourself stuck in shutdown. Understanding that coming out of a paralyzing freeze response requires some fight-or-flight activation is the first step to getting unstuck. The next step is to move your spine to awaken your Movement System. The final step involves dissipating the extra energy associated with unfreezing and anchoring into connection with others. Walking with a friend is the easiest way to accomplish the final step.
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- by Chantal Donnelly, PT