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Functional Freeze vs. Dissociation: Understanding the Difference

Updated: Jun 12



Physiology of the Freeze Response

The freeze response is an automatic reaction controlled by the nervous system. When faced with a threat, the sympathetic nervous system activates the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. When fighting or fleeing is not possible, the freeze response takes over.


This response is characterized by a sudden onset of immobility and inability to move or speak. During this state, your heart rate and blood pressure increase as your body prepares to defend itself. Respiration becomes rapid and shallow, and pupils dilate to increase awareness. The freeze response causes a rush of adrenaline which provides a burst of energy and focus.


Triggers of the Freeze Response

There are several triggers that can induce the freeze response. Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event, physical or emotional abuse, public humiliation, or extreme stress can all activate this reaction. The freeze response is an evolutionary survival mechanism intended to camouflage an individual or play dead in the face of danger. When triggered, the amygdala hijacks the thinking part of the brain, making the freeze response an involuntary reaction.


Understanding Functional Freeze

In a state of functional freeze, individuals may continue to outwardly function in daily life while psychologically stuck in a heightened state of anxiety and stress.


Physiological Effects

Physiologically, the body is in a state of hyperarousal, with increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as elevated cortisol levels. This can lead to difficulty sleeping, fatigue, and impaired concentration and focus.


Difficulty Transitioning Between Tasks

Mentally, it can be challenging to transition thoughts from a stressful event to daily tasks. Individuals may feel preoccupied, worried, or on edge. This can make it difficult to be fully present or engaged in work, social interactions, or leisure activities.


Emotional Numbing

There may also be a sense of emotional numbing, where strong emotions are dulled or detached from conscious awareness and daily experience. Individuals may report feeling disconnected from themselves, their environment, or other people.


What Is Dissociation?

Dissociation is a mental process where a person disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories or sense of identity. It is a coping mechanism where a person mentally separates themselves from a stressful or traumatic experience. Dissociation can be a temporary response to a traumatic event, or in more severe cases it can be a long-term phenomena.


Causes of Dissociation

Dissociation is usually a coping mechanism to protect oneself from trauma, stress or anxiety. The most common causes are severe emotional or physical trauma, especially in childhood. Other factors that can trigger dissociation include sleep deprivation, substance use, medical conditions like epilepsy, and high fever. For some folks, dissociation can become a habituated way of avoiding stressful thoughts or emotions.




Key Differences Between Functional Freeze & Dissociation

Functional freeze and dissociation are two separate psychological states with some overlap in symptoms, but several key differences.


In a state of functional freeze, your body remains in an activated fight or flight mode, evidenced by a rapid heart rate, sweating, and feelings of panic or dread. Dissociation, on the other hand, is characterized by a sense of detachment from your body and emotions. Your physiological arousal may decrease as you “zone out.”


Awareness of Surroundings

When functionally frozen, you can remain fully aware of your surroundings and environment. You know where you are and what is happening around you, even if you feel stuck. In dissociation, your awareness of your immediate environment decreases. You may feel detached from your senses and have difficulty concentrating or following conversations. The outside world may seem hazy or far away.


Memory Formation

Although in a state of functional freeze you remain aware of your surroundings, you may have trouble forming new memories or recalling details of events. In dissociation, your ability to encode and store new memories is more significantly impaired. Chunks of time may feel missing, and you may struggle to recollect what happened during dissociative episodes.


Triggers

Dissociative triggers are more often internal, while functional freeze is usually in response to an external stressor.



Coping With Functional Freeze vs Dissociation



Recognizing the Signs

Functional freeze and dissociation are two distinct psychological states with some overlapping symptoms. With functional freeze, you continue with daily tasks on the surface but feel emotionally paralyzed. Signs include fatigue, anxiety, lack of motivation, and difficulty concentrating. Dissociation is a more extreme disconnection from yourself and your environment. It may involve depersonalization, derealization, amnesia, or identity confusion.


Managing Functional Freeze

To cope with functional freeze, focus on self-care. Prioritize sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet to boost your mood and energy levels. Pay attention to your thoughts through journaling or talk therapy. Connecting with others can help you feel less isolated, so call a friend or join an online support group. Start with small, manageable steps and avoid taking on more responsibilities until you start to feel better. Be patient and compassionate with yourself.


Seeking Help for Dissociation

Dissociation typically requires professional support to address. Speaking to a trauma-informed therapist can help you process the underlying causes of your dissociation and learn skills to manage symptoms. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, Brainspotting, and somatic experiencing are approaches that can be very effective for dissociation. The most important first step is to seek an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.


FAQs: Navigating Functional Freeze and Dissociation

What is the difference between functional freeze and dissociation?

Functional freeze refers to a state in which you are able to complete necessary daily tasks but remain psychologically stuck and unable to fully engage with the present moment. In this state, you may feel a lack of motivation, anxiety, and exhaustion. Dissociation, on the other hand, is a detachment from your thoughts, feelings, memories, and sense of identity. When dissociating, you may feel disconnected from yourself or the world around you.


What causes functional freeze and dissociation?

Both states can be triggered by traumatic experiences, prolonged stress, or adverse childhood events. When faced with threatening situations, your body activates its fight, flight, or freeze response. Functional freeze occurs when you remain stuck in the freeze state even after the threat has passed. Dissociation is a coping mechanism that allows you to detach from the present moment as a way of protecting yourself from traumatic memories or emotions.


How can I move out of these states?

Several strategies may help shift out of functional freeze or dissociation:

•Practice grounding techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, yoga or exercise. Physical movement and sensation can help reconnect you to the present moment.

•Challenge negative or self-defeating thoughts. Notice negative thoughts about yourself or your circumstances and try to adopt a more balanced perspective.

•Connect with others. Call a friend or loved one, or consider speaking to a therapist. Social interaction and support can help lift your mood and shift your state of mind.

•Establish a routine. Having a regular schedule for meals, sleep, work, and leisure activities can help you feel more in control and present. Stability and consistency are grounding.

•Limit stress and set boundaries. Evaluate your commitments and obligations to determine if any are unnecessary or can be reduced. Make sure to schedule in time for adequate rest, relaxation and self-care.

•Consider professional help if needed. Speaking to a therapist or counselor can help you address the root causes contributing to your symptoms. They can also provide coping strategies tailored to your specific situation.


With patience and practice, you can overcome functional freeze and dissociation by developing an awareness of the thoughts and behaviors that trigger these states and learning strategies to stay grounded in the present moment and get reconnected with your body.


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