You stare at the to-do list. And then stare some more. You know there is a whole pile of work to finish but….
Sounds familiar? There are times when we have so much to do and we are unable to do any of it. We look at our to-do list and something happens that stalls us from even attempting it. It can be several tasks, or it can be one huge task - we see what we need to do and sometimes, we just shut down.
It’s impossible to even think of working through the list slowly or begin work at all. Thirty-five-year-old Kirthi Jayakumar, an Indian peace educator and author based in Chennai, India describes it as a ‘petrificus totalus’ situation, a reference to the popular magical spell in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, wherein a person is rendered paralysed and unable to move. Talking about her regular encounter with this sensation, she says, “I tend to freeze 9/10 times. The rare 1 time is when I fight. So this is pretty much Tuesday in my life as it were. The general experience is one of being rooted in the spot, feeling like my hands are tied by invisible cords and bound down to the sides of my body. I feel like I can't move, say anything, ask anything, or even scream….”
Fictional spells aside, there’s a term for this – ‘Overwhelm Freeze’.
What is an overwhelm freeze? Experts break it down
It’s a physiological response, when the body tenses up and is unable to think about the tasks at hand. It’s a state when a person has been in a ‘chronic state of fight or flight’, says Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist based in Dubai. “The body shuts down or hits the break to ensure its survival,” she says, adding that the person would experience a sense of internal collapse, apathy, dissociation, numbness, helplessness and shame. “The body hits the brakes and is basically shutting down, ‘playing dead’ and conserving energy because the sympathetic system (fight or flight/gas pedal) has been on for too long,” she adds.
The ‘overwhelm freeze’ is exactly as it sounds, as a person becomes ‘frozen in the moment’, says Carolyn Yaffe, a counsellor and cognitive behaviour therapist at the Medcare Medical Centre based in Jumeirah.
Sometimes when we are so overwhelmed, we just see a ball of tangled issues and we don’t see where one task ends and the other begins. This can manifest as a feeling of paralysis or detachment from the present moment.
“Sometimes when we are so overwhelmed, we just see a ball of tangled issues and we don’t see where one task ends and the other begins. This can manifest as a feeling of paralysis or detachment from the present moment. Along with the mental shutdown, there are physical repercussions that include difficulty in breathing, a rapid heart rate, as tension engulfs the body, Yaffe explains.
After a task is prolonged, the risk for mental and medical problems increase, leading to further complications as anxiety further monopolises the brain.
Shivani Misri Sadhoo, an Indian psychologist based in Delhi, India, elaborates on the ramifications of the long-term freeze saying, “A long-term freeze increases the risk of mental health problems like anxiety, depression, sleep problems and bodily complaints of muscle tension.”
A long-term freeze increases the risk of mental health problems like anxiety, depression, sleep problems...
This also could culminate in ‘brain fog’, Misri adds, “Other aspects suffer, including the ability to process information, concentration and paying attention. This leads to brain fog, which leads people to act spaced out, distracted and forgetful.”
At times, this task paralysis can lead to procrastination, especially in the cases of students in university, who resort to procrastination to avoid the overwhelming tasks at hand.
Gary Pheiffer, assistant professor of psychology at the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, explains, “We see this sometimes in a university setting when students procrastinate, they become swamped and just give up. It could be a large-scale project that requires attention, but has a deadline looming. As the deadline closes in on you, it is common to struggle with managing emotions that arise.”
As the deadline closes in on you, it is common to struggle with managing emotions that arise.
He adds that it is a vicious cycle, as anxiety can intensify procrastination, which exacerbates anxiety further. This overwhelming pressure and stress results in a burnout, which affects both the physical and mental health. “The mental health complications result in the difficulties of concentration, making decisions or physical complications such as headaches, stomach troubles and the probability of a weakened immunity.”
Which age group is most affected?
An overwhelm freeze can affect individuals of all ages, but it might be more prevalent in adults who are tackling the responsibilities of work, family and other responsibilities, especially those trying to establish a career and build social relationships. Pheiffer says that young adults, 18 to 29 years, have been found most likely to face stressors related to their transition to adulthood. “Additionally, older adults (65+ years) may also experience overwhelm, particularly if they are facing health challenges or dealing with significant life changes such as retirement or the loss of a spouse or friend,” he adds. He concludes that such an overwhelm is a complex experience, which is beyond factors of age, people’s own distinct personality traits, and everyone should be considered as a separate individual, so that their needs are understood better.
How does one cope with this freeze?
First breathe, step back.
How does one re-center themselves in the middle of an overwhelm freeze? First, we need to see if we can dial down the stress a little by ourselves - and that can be achieved by just taking a step back and taking a few deep breaths at first. This can help in lowering your cortisol, one of your main stress hormones.
There is a helpful breathing process to remember, as you can count to five with each breath. Misri explains, “You might find it helpful to count to 5 having each breath. Inhale for 5 counts, hold your breath in your lungs for another 5 counts, then count to 5 again while you exhale.”
If you feel frozen, there is a sensory grounding technique at hand. “Try to pay attention to your senses and notice those sensations that you feel both externally and internally. For instance, you may notice that you feel the tension in your shoulders or pay attention to what you feel such as seeing, hearing,” she adds. Slowly, begin to release your tension by making deliberate movements. “You may calm yourself by stomping your feet or punching a pillow to release the tension,” adds Misri. Just focusing on breathing creates safety for the body.
Self-care and reflection
Before you plunge into the tasks ahead and slowly wade into them ¬- take a look at your lifestyle. Get your sleeping patterns in order and make sure you have 7 to 8 hours of sleep, get exercise and eat the right, healthy food. “Take care of yourself physically and psychologically by practising self-care,” says Meher Mirchandani, an Indian author, entrepreneur, and mindfulness coach based in Dubai.
“When your body feels strong and steady, it takes more to overwhelm you,” says Afridi. As your anxiety gradually decreases, you can begin to process your feelings and get perspective.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to people around you, it is beneficial to seek support from people you trust. Talking to someone you trust can help you understand your feelings further, says Yaffe.
“If it's planning dinner for kids, can you pick up ready-made options from the grocery store? If it’s work, is there a way you can focus more, delegate to others, and break up your days with breaks and things that relax you?”
Figure out what throws you into overwhelm and break into smaller chunks to address it.
Afridi says. If its relationships that cause the overwhelm freeze, see whether you should learn the skills of setting boundaries and clearer forms of communication. "Figure out what throws you into overwhelm and break into smaller chunks to address it,” she adds.
Prioritising, and setting goals
Take a look at your workstation. Is it cluttered and disorganised? This can contribute to increasing anxiety.
So begin your day by first organising your workstation and decluttering it. Mirchandani adds the importance of this ritual, as it helps to decrease stress and enhances productivity.
Coming to the tasks, which seem endless or mammoth. First, break them down into smaller, achievable goals. This makes the tasks look far more approachable and less daunting, according to Yaffe. Mirchandani complements this point by adding that dividing your work into smaller, doable ones, makes you feel far less stressed and you can begin to advance towards your goals.
Begin your day by first organising your workstation and decluttering it. It helps to decrease stress and enhances productivity.
Khadeeja Balkhi, a sustainability expert, who travels between Doha, Jeddah, Karachi, shared her experience of being caught in such a freeze. She also emphasised the importance of saying ‘no’ to distractions like social media, and not taking on more workload than one can already handle. Referring to her own profession, she adds how she breaks down heavy workloads into smaller tasks. “We do a lot of heavy documentation - so each task is a goal in itself, and that’s kind of rewiring the brain for me.”
She also explains how overwhelm is also caused by the drive for perfection which is debilitating, and now that she has ‘chosen progress over perfection’ after being in constant touch with a lifestyle coach. “When we’re in college, we say in interviews, we’re perfectionists - but we are way past that, and we need to weed that idea out. I made a lot of progress after rewiring my brain, because before that it was in a freeze, because earlier, I wasn’t enjoying my tasks - I was in a freeze, and I couldn’t complete them for months. This rewiring changed things for me.”
Giving yourself a small reward
As you begin to tick off your to-do list, you feel a sense of accomplishment. It is advisable to begin with the smallest task, perhaps a particularly easier and enjoyable one, so that you experience that feeling of success. This gives you a boost of confidence. Pheiffer adds, “The satisfaction of ticking off tasks on a to-do list can be thrilling, serving as motivation to propel oneself through a challenging phase.”