Bed rotting every night? You're actually in a 'functional freeze.'

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Fight. Flight. Freeze?

Yes, our bodies react all kinds of ways to all kinds of stressors, one of which is to "freeze," i.e. shut down physically, mentally and emotionally. This might make sense in the case of a life-threatening situation, but not something that makes sense for everyday life like going to work, casually dating or meeting up with a group of friends. And it really doesn't make sense when you're under the covers at home not planning to move and not texting people back because even simple tasks feel overwhelming (at least according to one viral TikTok).

This phenomenon is known as a "functional freeze." It's not a clinical term, but you might hear names like freeze response, autopilot mode or stress paralysis if you're talking to a therapist about similar feelings. Or you might have a more common diagnosis like depression or anxiety that's manifesting as a freeze.

Everyone might experience a freeze from time to time, but mental health professionals encourage people to watch out for warning signs in case something more serious develops.

"People are able to engage in kind of the bare minimum basic functioning, so still going to work and engaging with others, but performance may slip," says T.M. Robinson-Mosley, counseling psychologist. "Relationships may not be as healthy or productive. Communication may be a challenge. You may cancel plans and it just is really difficult."

Signs of functional freeze include ongoing low levels of depression and anxiety, a desire to isolate from others, difficulty taking care of yourself and exhaustion.
Signs of functional freeze include ongoing low levels of depression and anxiety, a desire to isolate from others, difficulty taking care of yourself and exhaustion.

Why do people functionally freeze?

Why does this freezing happen? Think of stressors adding up like tiles in a game of Tetris. Block after block that builds and builds until it's game over.

"Everyday stress can build to a level that’s overwhelming for your body – but how that stress is expressed will be different for everyone," says Miranda Nadeau, a licensed psychologist. Freezing can happen anywhere: at home, at a big work meeting, public speaking event or a tense conversation. You might be a so-called "functional freezer" "if you find yourself mentally and physically stuck in place, going through the motions on autopilot." It's another response beyond getting angry (fighting) or outright canceling (fleeing).

"Functional freeze allows you to continue going about your life, but in a robotic, disconnected way," Nadeau adds. "It’s like your brain hits pause on emotional engagement to keep you operational in the short term."

It's associated with "bed rotting," another social media-friendly term meaning when a person stays in bed, either for an entire day or for an extended period of a day, without engaging in any daily activities or chores, according to Mosley. Scrolling on your phone to unwind isn't a problem in moderation, of course. It's the interference with other activities that raises eyebrows.

People who functionally freeze may seem all right on the outside but privately struggle. "They may appear high functioning, socializing with others and keeping up the outward appearance of normalcy, yet internally they're feeling emotionally numb, stuck and dissociated from the world around them," says Chase Cassine, licensed clinical social worker. "However, they're going through the motions to 'survive in life; not thrive in it.'"

Interesting: You know what fight or flight is. What about fawning?

What are signs of functional freeze?

Signs of functional freeze include ongoing low levels of depression and anxiety, a desire to isolate from others, difficulty taking care of yourself and exhaustion, according to Mosley.

It could also show up in other ways:

  • Emotional numbness. "You sit through a stressful meeting without feeling anxious, only to realize later that you can’t remember much of what was talked about," Nadeau says.

  • Strict routines. Maybe you move through your daily tasks with precision and refuse to deviate in favor of creativity or spontaneity.

  • Procrastination and indecision. "You might avoid taking action because you’re stuck in a state of overthinking and paralysis," Nadeau adds.

Keep in mind, too, that "functional freeze is not a clear diagnosis," Mosley says. "It could simply be the indication that something else is happening," i.e. anxiety, depression, another mental health condition. You may experience a functional freeze for a day or two, but two weeks or more suggests more is going on.

Consider it in terms of frequency, intensity and time. Can you not remember the last time you felt good? Does your worry feel excessive? How long have you felt like this?

What does stress do to the body? It might be worse than what you realize.

Is there a way to stop functional freezing?

If this is sounds like you, don't panic. You have options.

  • Reduce your stress. Try mindful breathing, exercise or stretching. You could even take more breaks during the day as you can, even as small as 15 minutes.

  • Remember that less is more. Create an "it's done" list to identify what you've already accomplished. "Sometimes we can feel really fatigued and also really demotivated when we're unable to see progress," Mosley says.

  • Ground yourself. Literally, go "grounding," i.e. take a barefoot walk on the grass. Yoga or deep breathing could also help you connect to the present moment. Knitting, gardening and hiking are great options too.

  • Switch up your routine. Make a left instead of a right on the way to work. Or are there other tasks you've been putting off doing that you can mix in with your regular ones?

  • Get in touch with your emotions. "Practice naming your emotions, even if they’re uncomfortable," Nadeau says. "Journaling or talking with a trusted confidant can help you process what you’re feeling instead of numbing out."

  • Seek mental health treatment. If you're struggling to "unfreeze" yourself, it may be time to to ask for professional help. "In working with a qualified therapist, a collaborative effort can assist the client in identifying and providing tools to help the brain and nervous system feel safe, centered and grounded," Cassine says.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Functional freeze: What is it and how does it relate to bed rotting?

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