The Freeze Response to Chronic Stress – a Description

I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to blog until I’d submitted the thesis but today has not been a good day. At all. Stream of consciousness coming up…

I have been on the verge of melt down pretty much for the entirety of today. I did an hour’s work this morning after I got up, which = win!

But then, oh then, the anxiety, fear and panic manifesting in the freeze response.

I’m not entirely sure how to describe this but there goes nothing.

It feels like a damn is about to burst and I am about to be drowned in panic. And in order to avoid that, I’m squashing it down as hard as I possibly can. So I’m aware there are all these really strong feelings just waiting to get out but because I can’t deal with that, I’m keeping a lid on the pressure cooker.

And instead my mind goes blank. I’ll stare at whatever’s in front of me but not really notice it. My eyes are unfocused and everythnig outside the tiny pinprick in the middle might as well not be there. I’m aware that I’m hunched up, tense, completely unable to relax, that I’d be in tears if I wasn’t keeping a lid on it. But I can’t do anything to stop it and make the feelings go away.

My breathing gets really slow and shallow with the occassional deeper gasp, and my throat feels constricted because every muscle in my body is so tense.

My muscles feel tingly-wierd, like I want to make some explosive movement but instead they’re frozen.

In fact my entire body is virtually frozen. Except there’s one little tell, somewhere, a twitchy foot, or a finger repetetively moving in cirles on my skin, or playing with a silky label.

(labels/clothing tags have been my comfort blanket since I was a small child. These days I carry a bit of ribbon in my pocket so I can fiddle with it when I think no-one’s watching. If I can get away with it, I’ll suck my thumb).

And when I freeze like that (and it happens quite a lot), when I feel as though I couldn’t move a muscle, time seems wierd. Like I have no idea how long I’ve been frozen. I don’t know if it lasts secons or minutes or as much as quarter of an hour. If I’m alone in a room, I will stay there for ages, but if I hear someone coming, I’ll move into a normal working position, so it looks like I’m doing something productive instead of having a melt-down.

I feel rather like Trinity in the first matrix film when she’s being chased by the agents. She lands on a floor, at the bottom of a staircase, haivng temporarily evaded them. She lies there winded, frozen, saying out loud to herself “Trinity, get up!” After what feels like forever she makes a desperate sprint to the ringing phone.

I feel stuck on that floor, unable to move even, though I know the threat is coming for me.

I want to fight, or to run, and I can’t do either.

I want to curl up into a ball and cry, but I can’t.

I tried this afternoon and fell alseep on the couch for an hour.

I “talked” to Squishy on the phone this evening. I say talked, I cried a lot, silently, trying and failing not to break down into a raggedy mess. Trying to keep my shit together.


In this state, is it any wonder I can’t string a scientific sentence together to save my life?

I was supposed to finish a rough draft of my General Discussion chapter today, along with the short discussion for Chapter 5.

All I’ve managed is one measely paragraph.

When things were bad before but I had time until the Ultimate Deadline, it wasn’t so bad, a single paragraph *was* progress.

But today, with essentially three days left to finish writing my:

  • General Discussion Chapter
  • Chapter Discussions for Chapters 4 and 5
  • Chapter Introductions for Chapters 4 and 5
  • Revamp my Modelling Section of Chapter 4 (nearly half the chapter!)
  • Write *from scratch* half of Chapter 1: Introduction/Lit Review Chapter

…before I have to submitt something, anything, resembling a Thesis/Disseration,

one paragraph is just not enough. Nowhere near enough, and nothing you can say makes today any less of a disaster!

I’ve been trying to tell myself all day that it’s just a few more days of flat out writing, and then a couple of days to check it over, assemble it, print it and bind it before handing it, and then it will all be over.

But it is not helping.

It fundamentally doesn’t seem achieveable.

And it certainly isn’t going to be achieveable if I have ANY more days like today where my brain will not fucking co-operate to put some blasted words on paper.

It’s so unbelievably frustrating. Especially when yesterday was so productive. My Supervisor earned his keep for the first and last time yesterday, in four FUCKING years. I have lots of notes from our skype calls that yesterday made reasonable sense and that I thought would be, if not easy then possible to  get down on paper just to fill the gaps and tick the boxes so I can redeem myself in the Viva.

And today, nothing. I looked at my notes on what to write for STAT3 and I just couldn’t form a single useful sentence from them.

I don’t have time for my brain to gang up on me like this!

I just want it done and out of my life for ever and ever and ever, and five years ago, when I was an undergraduate in my final year I could have churned this out in a weekend, no problem. I would have been stressed but it would have been the useful kind of stress that gives you the motivation to fight on, as opposed to this chronic stress that has mutated into anxiety, depression and burn-out.

I have spent so long facing situations I had no power to change or fight against that my physiology is all fucked up. I resort to the freeze response as my first port of call because for so long there has been no way to run away from it, and no way to fight it.

Telling me to just keep going, or pull my fucking finger out and crack on, just doesn’t help any more.


I just cried for 10 min, calmed down for another 10 min then spent over half an hour lying on the floor in savasana listening to music.

I feel a lot better.

That thing where you should really, really let your body complete the stress response.


I’m going to go with, “well that was rather unpleasant” as my statement for the day.

I’m also sticking with “god, my brain sucks”.

Life is hard enough right now without you, my darling brain, making it 50 times worse, thanks.

Hope you’re having a better go of the new year than me.

I’ll be back soon my dears


I have survived today and the world hasn’t ended. Baby steps, Nessie.


6 thoughts on “The Freeze Response to Chronic Stress – a Description

  1. I know a lot of this far to well (I was stitchscience on here, you may or may not remember me but I too live in the valley of PhD shit).I’ll just tell you this, where you have labels I have bears and I love my thumb. It will be gone from your life soon and f*ck it then you can print a copy off and hold a burning ceremony for it (I’m planning a viking funeral for mine). A paragraph is a paragraph, its a fair few step ups from watching the cursor blink at you and its better than just a word or a sentence. As you said yourself you survived today and the world didn’t end, that is a massive win.

    • Ooo, hey, yes I remember you!
      Thumbs are amazing and seriously underrated. Whenever people give me grief, I remind myself there are far more destructive ways to self-soothe, so fuck’em. Plus, you always have your thumb with you. Bears? Toy bears? 😀

      Now that is an idea I can get behind. A viking funeral pyre for my thesis… ooo, I do love a good bonfire.

      I wrote a couple more paragraphs after this blog post, so definitely winning. Going to celebrate by going to bed.
      And as Mum was saying, tomorrow is a new day and it will look better in the moring.
      Hope you have a good day/night whatever timezone you’re in x

  2. Aw hon.

    If it helps at all, I did pretty much exactly this in the last few days before one of my biggest thesis deadlines, and it was horrible and miserable and I wanted to die and contemplated just leaving without my degree rather than having to look at that damn thing again…

    And then somehow I got through it and did it anyways. It still makes me want to vomit a little knowing that my thesis is out there with my name on it, as it’s seriously a TERRIBLE piece of shit, but I did the thing. They gave me the degree. It ended, and I left. Halle-fucking-lujah.

    I’m so sorry you are having to go through this. But the intensity of the horribleness is not necessarily proof that you can’t get to the other side.


    I believe in you.

  3. Hey Nessiemonster. Wish I could say something useful and profound, but if I can’t do that I can at least share your misery. 😛 I am sitting here at my work laptop reading blogs on WordPress and doing my thesis stress-relief response, which is listening to audio stories. In the meantime I have a confusing mess of statistics waiting for me. I am right where you are, and yeah, it sucks. It’s funny though. My stress responses are still present, and I’ve cried over this mess of a task more than once in the recent past. But the physical symptoms as they used to exist are so much milder since I moved a state away from my college town. I used to have regular chest pain, difficulty breathing, and I would wake up on many days with my jaw aching after a night of grinding my teeth. All that, at least, is gone. Is it a sign that I’m checking out mentally from this project, and therefore am even less likely to finish it? I don’t know. It’s a distinct possibility. But I’m going to sign out of WordPress in a minute and try to figure out one more step in my statistics. One more thing. Even if I should be making 10x that much progress this evening, at least it is a step forward. If I ever make it through this mess I will SO be having my own thesis-burning ceremony!!

    • I’m all for sharing the misery!

      I hope the milder stress symptoms is a good thing? The chest pain and breathing difficulty sounds scary. I was reading about stress and burn-out the other day and oh boy does the description of burn-out I linked to describe my experience with the PhD. It might be worth looking at? Unfortunately the tips for coping with it involve reducing your stressors and taking time off – things that aren’t usually an option fo PhD students, and not for people with lots of unavoidable life stressors going on either!

      So, that leaves us both with “One more step”, always one more step. Good luck with the statistics, it’s a complete nightmare at the best of times. :-/
      Enjoy your audio stories.

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