If you sometimes feel paralyzed by fear, you’re not alone. Paralysis is one of the ways our body responds to stress, and there’s ways to manage it.
Living with anxiety engages your autonomic nervous system (ANS), also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response.
The “freeze” response can feel like paralysis — physical, emotional, or cognitive.
If you’re feeling this way, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s a natural response, and it’s possible to manage it.
Under high stress, the amygdala (the brain’s “fire alarm”) signals your hypothalamus to secrete stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, which activates the freeze response, explains Gaby Balsells, a clinical psychologist in Stamford, Connecticut.
“The danger feels so high, it goes beyond our capacity to tolerate stress, so it’s like our nervous system goes offline or shuts off. We’re able to survive but not fully function. It’s the equivalent to playing dead in the animal world,” she explains.
Anxiety can seemingly paralyze different parts of your body, including:
- Arms: heaviness, inability to move them
- Legs: stuck in place, inability to walk away
- Speech: going mute, difficulty finding words
- Cognition: inability to process incoming information
In addition to physical symptoms, anxiety can also be emotionally paralyzing, keeping you from moving forward in a specific area of your life.
This could manifest as a comorbid condition or relational style in some cases.
Some examples include:
- Agoraphobia: fear of leaving your home
- Health anxiety: may prevent you from going to doctor appointments
- Driving anxiety: may prevent you from seeing your loved ones
- fear of intimacy with others
There are many possible scenarios, but these are a few examples.
Also known as “analysis paralysis,” this is not a formal diagnosis but could fall under the umbrella of anxiety symptoms.
When you feel stuck about a choice, it signals that you’re in fight-or-flight mode, and all nonessential systems have shut down.
Once your nervous system is calmer, your “higher mind” (like your prefrontal cortex) will have a chance to reengage so that you can come to a rational conclusion.
When you’re ready to “thaw,” a combination of approaches may help.
Deep belly breathing engages your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as your rest-and-digest state.
You may find it helpful to try box breathing, says Victoria Smith, a licensed clinical social worker in El Segundo, California.
It works like this:
- inhale for 4
- hold for 4
- exhale for 4
- hold for 4
“Our breath is the most direct tool to connecting with our nervous system. I often practice breathing exercises with clients who are outside of their window of tolerance,” she says.
What’s the window of tolerance?
The window of tolerance is the zone where you can experience emotions and still manage them, explains Smith. “Once the threshold of our window of tolerance has been crossed, our rational minds take a back seat, and our survival responses take over.”
A few grounding exercises may feel useful, including the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
Try to name:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can feel
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
Tapping exercises may help calm your nervous system, says Smith. This engages both sides of your brain, called bilateral stimulation, a key feature of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy for trauma recovery.
“Place your left hand on your right shoulder and right hand on your left shoulder, and slowly alternate tapping each hand. Notice the sensations in your body, and practice tapping until you feel more grounded,” she explains.
Mindfulness-based practices can help you stay in the present moment.
Some ideas include:
“It is also important to practice these skills during times when we are not activated. That way, when we are flooded with adrenaline or cortisol, we can access them more easily because we have done them before,” says Courtney Burns, a licensed therapist in Portland, Oregon.
In his work, psychologist Dr. Peter Levine observes how wild animals “shake off” distressing experiences after being frozen in the fear response or playing dead.
You may find it helpful to incorporate a similar practice into your routine, says Burns. “Physical movement like dance, shaking, and yoga can also help address the central nervous system response.”
Therapy can help you safely explore your triggers and build distress tolerance. For some, an intense stress response could result from past negative experiences.
“Working to heal past trauma may help make sense of this trauma response. Work with a therapist or healer to reconnect with your body and learn to soothe your fear and anxiety,” says Balsells.