You have a massive project due, your house is a disaster, and you’re down to a single pair of clean socks. You know you have to start somewhere if you’re going to accomplish anything, but you can’t seem to get unstuck.
When you have a dozen pressing tasks on your to-do list or even just one crucial assignment with a deadline, you might experience overwhelm freeze. Sometimes called task paralysis, overwhelm freeze is a feeling of inability to act on a seemingly overwhelming chore, activity or list.
Learning about the root cause of overwhelm freeze and using helpful tips to “unfreeze” yourself could help you get more accomplished and decrease your anxiety.
What Causes Overwhelm Freeze?
You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight response,” but freezing is another way humans react when a threat is perceived. (“Fawn,” or appease, is a fourth, but that’s for another discussion.)
When experiencing fight or flight responses, your heart rate and breathing increase, muscles tense and pupils dilate in preparation for fleeing the scene or throwing punches.
However, during a freeze response, you experience a drop in heart rate and physical immobility. But why?
In some circumstances, freezing could be helpful. For instance, it could help you remain hidden from a wild animal or intruder. It could also reduce the impact of a traumatic event. And while that makes sense during a potentially physically dangerous situation, why do some people experience overwhelm freeze when faced with a deadline or a messy house? It’s simply because our brains and bodies respond similarly to any perceived threat.
“Our bodies react to threat the same way, whether the threat is external, like the proverbial saber-toothed tiger, or the threat is internal,” Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical assistant professor at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, told the New York Times. “With a big overwhelming task list, that threat could be the threat of failure, or it could be the threat of letting others down. It could be the threat of feeling stupid or incompetent because we don’t know where to start or how to do things.”
Who Experiences Task Paralysis?
Anyone can experience overwhelm freeze at any time, but some people may be more inclined to feel swamped and unable to do anything about it. For instance, neurodivergent people, such as those with ADHD or autism, may shut down when feeling overwhelmed.
Overwhelm freeze can be a common response for people with depression or anxiety. This may be because freezing releases endorphins that naturally boost your mood and help you calm down. People who tend to be perfectionists are also prone to task paralysis.
“In perfectionism, we over-identify with our performance,” Hendriksen told the New York Times. “If we unconsciously think we are what we do, then what we have to do becomes much more fraught.”
Tips for Overcoming Overwhelm Freeze
Overwhelm freeze can be frustrating, as you know you need to handle all the tasks on your plate, but you struggle to overcome the paralysis you feel. Fortunately, you can use several tactics to unfreeze yourself and get things done.
Break Tasks Down Into Manageable “Chunks”
The smaller the chunk, the better. For instance, if you have a 1,500-word report due, charge yourself with writing one paragraph or even a single sentence. Alternatively, set a time limit.
“The thought of cleaning the whole place is daunting,” Ari Fox, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children’s mental health in New York, told PsychCentral. “Instead, we often suggest setting a timer on a phone or microwave clock for 10 minutes. For these 10 minutes, the individual can focus on just one aspect of cleanup, like the dishes.”
Chances are good that you’ll want to continue once you gain some momentum. But even if you don’t, you will have at least made a dent in your to-dos.
Lower the Bar
Remind yourself that perfection is a myth. A job done imperfectly is better than one that you never complete.
Free yourself from your own expectations of perfection. Instead, determine what is good enough for the task at hand and only do the bare minimum. If you have the energy and motivation to go above and beyond, that’s great! If not, that’s OK, too.
Remember when your mom promised you a delicious dessert if you ate dinner? You can do the same thing for yourself to break out of overwhelm freeze. Complete a specific task or work for a length of time and then allow yourself a treat, like scrolling social media for 20 minutes.
“Focus on how you will feel when your home is organized and clean, how exciting and fun it can be to plan your wedding, how responsible you will feel when you complete your taxes,” Nancy Irwin, a psychologist with Seasons in Malibu who has a doctorate in clinical psychology, told Healthline. “Then reward yourself for a job well done. Positive reinforcement ensures the next project can go as smoothly and informs you that you are bigger than the anxiety.”
Before you begin or as you check items off of your to-do list, take time to check in on yourself. Becoming more mindful can increase your productivity and improve your overall well-being.
“Mindfulness is key,” Angela Ficken, a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and OCD, told Healthline. “A relatively easy mindfulness skill is to take yourself outside for a walk or to sit out on your stoop. Being out in the elements can be an easy visual and sensational cue to bring yourself into the present moment.”
Practice some deep-breathing exercises and perform a mental scan of yourself. Notice any physical sensations in your body, like pain or tension, as well as emotions you are experiencing. Acknowledge them and let them go.
The more you work on breaking out of overwhelm freeze, the easier it will become.