Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 5/3/2022
Here’s a question for the anxiety sufferers: have you ever felt so overwhelmed by anxiety that you simply froze? You might have experienced paralyzing anxiety.
Whether it’s a mound of late work, a looming presentation you feel inadequately prepared for, or even a sudden, panicked moment in your past where, rather than react, you just froze, paralyzing anxiety is something that many people experience at some point.
It’s a familiar experience. But when it becomes a routine, when it becomes common or when it happens with enough frequency that it eats away at your quality of life, it’s something that may require treatment.
Paralyzing anxiety’s negative impacts are part of our instincts, but like other instincts, they need to be managed and controlled. To understand how to do this, we need to start with some basics about how you’re feeling.
Paralyzing anxiety is not actually a different class of anxiety disorder. Rather, it’s a particular type of anxiety symptom that’s highlighted in some individuals’ anxious responses.
Sometimes referred to as severe anxiety, crippling anxiety, freezing anxiety or frozen anxiety, this particular symptom of anxiety disorders is a response to our natural fight, flight or freeze instinct — the one that tells us whether to run, defend ourselves or hold perfectly still and hope to go unnoticed.
Paralyzing anxiety attacks may look different in different people — it may cause some people to tense up, while others simply avoid or refuse to acknowledge the source of that anxiety. It may make some people literally motionless, while others may seem to function normally despite avoiding the thing that’s causing them anxiety — work, deadlines, confrontations or other sources of conflict.
Anxiety paralyzes us because, at its heart, anxiety is there to protect us. It doesn’t always do it the right way, though, and that’s why some people suffer from anxiety disorders.
It’s totally appropriate — and necessary for your survival — for anxiety to make you have a strong reaction to a bear or other predator, for instance. We need that to survive.
While freezing up to hide from a predator might be one safe response in the wild, in practice, it’s not a very effective way to deal with things like your boss calling you out on a missed deadline.
When anxiety paralyzes us in ways that aren’t beneficial, they go from survival instincts to behavioral symptoms.
Paralyzing anxiety and the feelings of fear inherent in it can cause both emotional paralysis and physical paralysis. There are several symptoms of paralyzing anxiety, and they don’t all resemble a freeze-in-place response the way you might imagine.
Paralyzing anxiety symptoms might include freezing or becoming motionless, but they might also include associated symptoms like:
Restlessness or agitation
Hyperventilation and other panic responses
Being on edge or jumpy
Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
Narrowing of attention
These are all, at their core, responses to panic. Panic is typically considered an extreme version of anxiousness or unease, but when it comes to anxiety disorders, panic symptoms and panic attacks can occur in people with milder forms of anxiety, too.
Well, that’s a subjective question. People who are expected to perform at a high level under pressure may find that the sudden urge to freeze up when anxiety sets in is a recipe for disaster — if you’re a public speaker or athlete, this may have a more significant impact on your daily life.
On the other hand, some people may prefer tensing up to some other anxiety symptoms, like stomach issues (like nausea and diarrhea).
Some people might prefer to sit still in their anxious thoughts rather than be jumpy or jittery. In some cases, it might be preferable to be frozen in place than to feel dizzy, light-headed, sweaty, or experience hot flashes or chills, rapid heart rate or heart palpitations.
If we’re being honest, however, all anxiety conditions are somewhat equal in their “worseness” and, left untreated, anxiety that you think is somehow “better” can become the kind of anxiety you don’t want.
Point being: we’re not keen on ranking the types of anxiety. Instead, we’d suggest getting treatment for each and every one of them. Your focus should be on having no symptoms whatsoever.
If there’s good news in the unspecific traits of paralyzing anxiety, it’s that paralyzing anxiety also seems to be a candidate for all of the suggested and recommended treatment types available to anxiety disorder sufferers.
These treatment options might involve many specific techniques, but for now, we’re going to break them into three major groups: therapeutic treatment, anxiety medication, and lifestyle changes.
When paired with other treatments, therapy for anxiety is a powerful tool — one that can yield some positive results for your mental health and improve your quality of life.
Currently, it’s believed that cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective forms of therapeutic intervention when it comes to mood disorders — especially anxiety disorders.
CBT isn’t the reclined, “tell me about your mother” kind of online therapy we’re used to seeing in TV and film. It’s a system of treatment designed to help you, the patient, learn to recognize patterns of anxious thought in your daily life, and then learn to process those thoughts and the resulting emotions in healthy ways.
Regulating unhealthy or anxious thoughts is the first step in the process of controlling these thoughts — so that they don’t control you.
These days, antidepressant medications are the go-to treatment for generalized anxiety disorder and other types of anxiety disorder.
Antidepressants — specifically, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs) — are considered a first-line treatment for anxiety. They work by helping your brain manage the level of neurotransmitters like serotonin within your brain chemistry, which are associated with mental disorders like anxiety.
If SSRIs (like sertraline) don’t work for you or if you begin to experience side effects that are interfering with your quality of life or daily tasks, your mental health professional might employ other medications for anxiety.
Let’s talk about physical health and mental health for a second.
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that if you’re living an unhealthy lifestyle, those choices could be contributing to your anxiety risk.
Habits like excessive drinking and smoking, recreational or illicit drug use and even unhealthy diet could be parts of your bigger mental health problem.
Going on a diet, getting the recommended exercise each week and dropping those bad habits are all generally good ideas, and they might also have a positive influence on your mental health. They could even help gradually unparalyze your paralyzing anxiety.
Feeling frozen is an understandable reaction when your anxiety symptoms start to overwhelm you. Many people have been there before, many will be again and you are certainly not alone in this suffering.
Paralyzing anxiety isn’t its own “class” of anxiety disorder, but rather a symptom of a very specific feeling of anxiety — one that’s probably more common than you think.
Unfortunately, the reality is that to address paralyzing or overwhelming anxiety, you’re going to need to unfreeze yourself and take some steps to address your mental health.
Ready to make some changes? Consider online mental health services.
Your mental healthcare provider will be able to assess your mental health state, listen to the symptoms you’re experiencing and make recommendations based on how you feel.
Whether it’s with us or another form of support, get the help you need today, to move freely, confidently and anxiety-free through your everyday life.