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Overcoming Functional Freeze

Overcome functional freeze with CBT therapy in san francisco and oakland bay area
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Imagine standing in the middle of a bustling city, frozen, while the world continues to move in fast-forward around you. This is what functional freeze can feel like—an involuntary, immobile state triggered by overwhelming stress or trauma. But what if there was a roadmap to navigate this freeze? A guide to understanding and overcoming functional freeze? That is precisely what we aim to provide in this blog post.

Understanding Functional Freeze

Illustration of the nervous system

The freeze response is an evolutionary survival mechanism, tucked away in the folds of our nervous systems, ready to be activated in the face of a threatening situation. Imagine a deer caught in headlights, immobile and unable to react. This is similar to what happens in our bodies during the freeze response, which can be considered an automatic response, alongside the fight or flight response. The heart rate remains stable, breathing becomes shallow, and our thinking brain or prefrontal cortex retreats into inaction. It’s like the body puts up a “Closed for Maintenance” sign as it attempts to conserve energy and protect itself from real or perceived danger. Understanding these freeze responses can help us better navigate stressful situations.

However, when the freeze response becomes overactive in the absence of real danger, it morphs into functional freeze, which can be referred to as an overactive freeze response. This often occurs when trauma overwhelms our ability to respond effectively, leaving the body feeling stuck in the freeze mode. Understanding trauma responses, like functional freeze, hinges on our realization that our response to trauma is automatic and not indicative of any weakness or failure.

The Role of the Nervous System

Our nervous system, including the sympathetic nervous system, is like a well-trained bodyguard, always on high alert, ready to protect us from harm. When the body enters freeze mode, it’s essentially our nervous system’s attempt to safeguard us from potential threats. As this response unfolds, the thinking brain or prefrontal cortex recedes allowing the limbic system to dominate, which inhibits rational information processing. It’s like driving through dense fog, with limited visibility and a heightened sense of fear.

Curiously, this protective mechanism of our body can sometimes result in conflict. The attachment system, which seeks comfort and safety, can clash with our defensive system, potentially resulting in the freeze response. It’s like having two captains on a ship, each steering in a different direction, leading to a state of anxious overwhelm.

Polyvagal Theory also offers valuable insights into how our bodies and nervous system react to extreme stress. It explains that the functional freeze is a physiological state activated by the dorsal vagal complex, which can occur when our system deems we cannot fight or flee from a threat. Understanding this connection is pivotal in recognizing and addressing the underlying autonomic processes during therapeutic interventions aimed at recovering from such immobilizing states.

Trauma and Functional Freeze

Just like a river can freeze in the face of harsh winter, our bodies can become immobilized due to overwhelming experiences or trauma. Various incidents like accidents or distressing medical procedures can trigger a freeze reaction, causing us to become stuck in this state. Even children can experience this freeze reaction due to a traumatic event that disrupts their emotional processing, such as falling and being instructed to get up before they have had the opportunity to fully process their reactions.

In more severe cases, children exposed to a violent environment may enter a functional freeze state as a coping mechanism, exhibiting symptoms such as anxiety and digestive issues. It’s like a small bird playing dead in the face of a predator, conserving energy, and hoping to go unnoticed.

Identifying Personal Triggers

Photo of a person experiencing physical and emotional signs of freeze response

Deciphering the triggers of the freeze response is akin to interpreting a secret language of our bodies. It’s an essential step in effectively managing and overcoming the freeze response. The physical signs of the freeze response can be as subtle as:

  • shallow breathing
  • increased heart rate
  • tense muscles
  • decreased body temperature
  • dilated pupils

or as noticeable as physical immobility and rigidity.

Emotional symptoms can range from a sense of heaviness or exhaustion to feelings of fear or disbelief.

Common Triggers

Imagine walking into a room and suddenly feeling a wave of anxiety wash over you for no apparent reason. This could be a reminder of a past trauma triggering a freeze response. Similarly, perceived threats, even if they are not real, can lead to functional freeze. This situation is comparable to a false alarm where the body’s alarm system is triggered without any actual threat.

Situations that cause extreme stress or fear can also lead to functional freeze. This is akin to our body slamming the emergency brakes when it feels overwhelmed. Understanding these triggers is the first step in decoding the secret language of our bodies.

Physical and Emotional Signs

The signs of functional freeze can manifest as both physical and emotional symptoms. Physically, it can feel like being stuck in a block of ice, with symptoms such as physical immobility, muscle tension, and difficulty thinking clearly. On an emotional level, it can feel like being lost at sea, with feelings of shock, anger, or fear, and a sense of disconnection.

These symptoms act as silent alarm bells, indicating that our body has entered a freeze state. Recognizing these signs can be a crucial step in managing and overcoming functional freeze.

Body-Based Techniques for Overcoming Functional Freeze

Illustration of deep breathing exercises for managing functional freeze

Much like a frozen river thawing under the spring’s warmth, body-based techniques can assist in liberating the body from the clutches of functional freeze. Techniques such as:

can help regulate the nervous system and diminish the intensity of the freeze response.

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing exercises, acting as a soothing breeze on a sweltering day, help to regulate the nervous system and mitigate the intensity of the freeze response. During a freeze response, our breathing can become restricted or shallow. Deep breathing can counteract this by enhancing oxygen intake and restoring balance to the body’s reaction.

Techniques like the 4-7-8 Breathing and Resonant Breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to relaxation and a sense of calm. Other techniques such as Clarity Breathwork and the Wim Hof Method can also help relax the body and mind, reduce stress, and overcome functional freeze.

Grounding Practices

Grounding practices serve as a storm anchor, assisting us to reconnect with the present moment and alleviate feelings of being trapped or overwhelmed. They are a set of mindful practices designed to maintain a balanced state of the nervous system.

By focusing on the sensations in our body or our immediate environment, grounding practices can help us regain control and prevent us from being overwhelmed by negative thoughts. Techniques such as the ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ grounding exercise can be particularly effective.

Somatic Experiencing

Somatic experiencing acts as a language interpreter for our bodies, aiding us in understanding and releasing trapped energy to conquer functional freeze. Developed by Peter A. Levine, PhD in the 1970s, somatic experiencing utilizes body movement to signal safety to the brain, facilitating a return to normal function.

During a typical session, clients focus on monitoring their physical sensations and increasing awareness to alleviate traumatic activation when trauma occurs. The therapist employs interventions to soothe the nervous system and promote healing.

self-compassion meditation and loving kindness phrases

Self-compassion meditation and loving-kindness phrases resemble warm blankets on a chilly night, offering comfort and safety throughout the healing journey.

To practice self-compassion meditation, follow these steps:

  1. Find a quiet space to sit or lie down.
  2. Close your eyes and relax with deep breaths.
  3. Focus on cultivating feelings of kindness and compassion towards yourself.

Loving-kindness phrases, such as:

  • ‘May I be happy’
  • ‘May I be healthy’
  • ‘May I be safe’
  • ‘May I live with ease’

are an integral part of this practice. These phrases are like positive affirmations, fostering emotions of love, compassion, and goodwill towards oneself and others.

Cognitive Approaches to Manage Functional Freeze

Illustration of cognitive approaches to manage functional freeze

Much like a lighthouse steering ships to safety amidst a storm, cognitive approaches can navigate us through managing functional freeze. Cognition plays a significant role in functional freeze experiences, particularly in executive dysfunction involving response inhibition and divided attention.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help address these cognitive vulnerabilities to anxiety and provide techniques to calm down amidst stress and anxiety.

Challenging Negative Thoughts

Negative thoughts can act as dark clouds on a sunny day, clouding our perspectives and setting off the freeze response. Challenging these thoughts can help reframe the way we perceive and respond to triggering situations.

Techniques such as:

  • practicing self-awareness
  • identifying automatic thoughts
  • using cognitive restructuring
  • focusing on gratitude

can help in reframing these thoughts. It’s like cleaning a dirty window, allowing us to see clearly and respond effectively.

Developing New Coping Mechanisms

The process of developing new coping mechanisms resembles learning to ride a bike and equips us with fresh strategies to steer through stress and anxiety. Techniques such as:

  • taking a time-out
  • practicing relaxation techniques
  • maintaining a balanced diet
  • getting enough sleep
  • engaging in regular exercise

Learning how to properly manage stress can help those who feel anxious to regain control over their emotions and improve their overall well-being.

Practicing relaxation techniques, establishing boundaries, focusing on gratitude, and utilizing mindfulness can all contribute to cultivating new coping mechanisms. It’s like creating a toolbox of strategies that we can pull from when faced with a triggering situation.

Building a Supportive Environment

Photo of a person seeking professional help for overcoming functional freeze

Establishing a supportive environment mirrors planting a garden, fostering a nurturing space for growth and healing. This includes seeking professional help and establishing a support network.

Establishing a Support Network

Creating a support network resembles constructing a safety net, offering emotional support and motivation throughout the healing journey. Friends, family, and support groups can all be part of this network, providing:

  • Emotional support
  • Understanding
  • Encouragement
  • Practical help

Creating a support network is like weaving a tapestry, where each thread represents a person or resource that can provide support. It’s important to prioritize building this network and look for supportive and trustworthy friends who can be there for you during your healing journey.

Seeking Professional Help

Enlisting the help of a mental health professional at the Bay Area CBT Center is like having a tour guide while exploring a new city. Our counselors in San Francisco, CA, offer expert guidance, emotional support, and customized treatment. Whether you’re seeking a couples therapist in the Bay Area, participating in group therapy, or engaging with cbt online courses, we focus on skill development and accountability. Our approach is comprehensive, addressing your unique needs and guiding you through your healing journey with a range of therapies, including trauma therapy, mindfulness therapy, somatic trauma therapy, and EMDR therapy. We’re committed to supporting your path to lasting healing and personal growth.


At Bay Area CBT Center, our psychological services include in-person and online therapy in California, as well as online workshops and group therapy in San Francisco and Oakland. We cater to those seeking the best therapists in the Bay Area. Our team of Bay Area therapists and psychologists in San Francisco, CA, are experts in treating trauma and its responses, such as functional freeze.

We offer a range of services from marriage counseling in San Francisco to individual therapy sessions. We also provide online courses and trainings with CE credits for clinicians and retreats, guiding you from the depths of functional freeze to the warmth of spring. 

By understanding the freeze response, identifying personal triggers, and employing body-based and cognitive techniques within a supportive environment, we navigate the journey towards healing and growth. Like a river thawing under the spring sun, our specialized services help you break free from functional freeze, flowing towards a brighter, healthier future.

Frequently Asked Questions

Evidence-based therapy involves interventions that are scientifically proven to be effective for particular issues. In this approach, a strong partnership based on trust and collaboration is formed between you and your therapist. Within this supportive and unbiased environment, you can freely express yourself without fear of judgment. Over a series of sessions, you and your therapist will work together to address obstacles and set goals aimed at personal growth and fulfillment. This method ensures that the techniques and strategies used are not only supportive but also empirically validated to help you achieve your therapeutic goals.

The Bay Area CBT Center provides therapy services for everyone, from children to adults, and welcomes individuals, couples, and groups. We help with various concerns like anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues, and behavior challenges. We value diversity and cultural differences, offering personalized and culturally sensitive care to each client.

Studies show that the bond between you and your therapist, known as the therapeutic alliance, is a key factor in treatment success. This alliance is characterized by the strength of your relationship and how well you both agree on treatment goals. Research indicates that individuals with a solid therapeutic alliance experience better treatment outcomes including greater productivity at work, more satisfying relationships, improved stress management, and decreased engagement in risky behaviors.

You can expect a 15-30 minute phone call with our care coordinator, who is extensively trained in ensuring the perfect match for you. During this conversation, our matching expert will collaborate with you to understand your therapy needs, preferences, and scheduling availability. This discussion builds upon the information you provided during sign-up and offers an opportunity for you to address any personal questions or concerns you may have about therapy or our services at The Bay Area CBT Center. Following your conversation, we’ll pair you with the therapist who best aligns with your needs, goals, and preferences.

At your matching appointment, we will match you with a therapist specifically chosen for you and schedule your first session. Depending on your availability, you can expect to meet your therapist anywhere from one day to a week after this appointment.

Our approach to therapy includes a flexible hybrid model, blending both online and face-to-face sessions. This option is perfect for clients situated close to our clinics in the Bay Area who prefer the flexibility of choosing between virtual consultations or meeting their therapist in person. Our aim with hybrid care is to ensure every client is matched with the ideal therapist and therapy environment, be it from the convenience of your own home or in one of our clinics.

At the Bay Area CBT Center, we accept PPO insurance plans that allow you to use out-of-network providers. This means if your insurance plan is a PPO and it includes mental health benefits, you could get back some or all of the money you pay for our services, depending on what your insurance company allows. When you see one of our therapists, they’ll give you a superbill. You can send this superbill to your insurance company to ask for reimbursement. If you’re not sure if your insurance covers services from providers not in their network, it’s a good idea to give them a call and check.

You may be eligible to have 60-80% of your costs covered by out-of-network benefits.

Also, if you have an FSA (Flexible Spending Account), you can usually use it to pay for individual counseling sessions. It’s wise to double-check with your FSA provider or talk to your accountant to make sure that counseling sessions are considered an allowed expense.

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