The Millennial Pilgrim: When freeze is your default response to everything

When you have grown up in an environment of chaos, abuse or uncertainty, even small inconveniences lead to major panic, and disproportionate feelings of distress and dejection

Somi DasUpdated: Friday, July 01, 2022, 02:33 PM IST
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I got a query from my senior on WhatsApp on Sunday night. I was finishing my column for the week when the desktop notification sent me into overthinking mode. Even before opening the message to see what the matter was, I could feel indignation rising up my spine and nervous energy spread through my body. I was already defensive. Thoughts like 'Why is she messaging me on my day off', 'Couldn't this have waited till tomorrow', etc, invaded my mind. It was a rather non-threatening message. But since I had already attached negative meaning to it, I launched a tirade against her on the message window and then froze. Within minutes I went from 'sitting in peace listening to jazz while finishing my article' to feeling claustrophobic and trapped inside my room and threatening to resign.

It is a miracle that I continue to have the job. It wouldn't be wrong to say that the reaction was unwarranted and extreme. This happens quite often with me. In the last eight months of being on a full-time job, I have sat with my overreactions, frustrations, and anxiety-laced existence. As I had written in an earlier column, due to past trauma, my threshold for enduring pressure situations and professional scrutiny is extremely low.

Even though my natural talent at certain things lands me lucrative job opportunities, it is extremely difficult for me to continue working under pressure without being overwhelmed and resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms like binge-eating and mindless scrolling. Eventually, quitting seems like the easiest way to restore my body's homoeostasis.

The pattern leaves me in an eternal loop of finding and quitting jobs. I end up creating the same kind of psychological hell in each job. Now, this is not to self-blame. There are indeed jobs that are unhealthy and the work culture so toxic that one mustn't continue for a day, even without better options. But it is beneficial to look inwards to identify the recurring thought and behaviour pattern vis-a-vis our work to not constantly jeopardise our career and keep our nervous system regulated at work.

The fight, flight and freeze response

Fight, flight, and freeze, are our sympathetic nervous system's reactions to stressful, frightening, or dangerous events. Freeze is your body’s inability to move or act against a threat. The goal of the fight, flight, and freeze is to reduce, end or evade danger and return to a calm and relaxed state. Now, we have to understand that a fair bit of anxiety is necessary to get anything done, move forward, and achieve a goal. Without anxiety, we will never get started. But those who have suffered trauma often interpret this healthy bit of anxiety as a threat. They want to get rid of the feeling instantly by taking impulsive decisions that would give them an immediate reprieve.

Workplace trigger points

  • Need for perfection

  • Being a people pleaser

  • Need for control

  • Fixed models of thinking, unwillingness to look at problems in other ways

  • Always attributing the worst intention to the opposite party

  • Taking everything personally

  • Attaching one's self-esteem to one's performance

  • Interpreting disagreements during a professional conversation as threats

What can be done?

  • Interpret the anxiety not as a threat, but as a tool to push you forward

  • Take a cold shower, when possible

  • Make space for disagreements

  • Develop self-compassion and allow space for mistakes

  • Stay hydrated

  • An intense workout helps you build courage, release the anxiety

  • Assertiveness training that helps you speak assertively and not passive-aggressively

  • Don't take things personally

  • Do not make assumptions about others' motives

  • Learn to accept uncertainty

  • Wrap up each day with relaxation activities

  • Start each day with techniques like visualisations and affirmations that instil courage in you

  • Eat protein-rich breakfast, low carbs

  • Maintain a healthy gut (fear and courage both reside in the gut)

  • Develop fluid and flexible mental models that help you to look at a situation from different angles

(The writer is a mental health and behavioural sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults. She can be found @the_millennial_pilgrim on Instagram and Twitter.)

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