Have you ever had one of those days when your heart wants to curl up and hide? When the world seems too loud, demanding, or overwhelming, you only want to retreat into your shell. If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably experienced what psychologists call an ‘ emotional shut down emotional shutdown.’
Although often misconstrued, this phenomenon is widespread and has significant implications for our mental health and relationships with others. So, let’s dive in and unravel the mystery behind emotional shutdown – what it is, why it happens, and most importantly, how we can better navigate these emotional waters.
Table of Contents
What is an Emotional Shutdown?
Emotional shutdown refers to a state where an individual suppresses their feelings or emotions, essentially becoming emotionally numb. This often happens as a defence mechanism during intense stress, fear, or trauma, when the emotional burden becomes too overwhelming. Like stonewalling and dissociation, an emotional shutdown can manifest in various ways, such as withdrawal from social interactions, decreased communication, or lack of emotional reactions. Even though it can provide temporary relief, chronic emotional shutdown can harm a person’s mental health and interpersonal relationships. 
Physical Manifestation of Emotional Shutdown
Cortisol and adrenaline, the body’s primary stress hormones, play a vital role in emotional shutdown. While they are essential for short-term stress, chronic emotional shutdowns can lead to health issues. Managing emotional shutdown is crucial for healthier relationships and preventing adverse health effects from chronic stress.
According to a 2016 study that monitored 156 couples for 15 years, the emotional shutdown was linked to acute musculoskeletal complaints such as backaches, stiff necks, and generalised muscle pains.
Symptoms of Emotional shutdown
Signs of emotional shutdown on your behaviour:
- Lack of emotional responsiveness: Individuals may be unable to feel joy, sadness, or other emotions.
- Feeling detached or disconnected: They might feel like they’re observing their own life from a distance or through a glass wall.
- Physical numbness or tingling: Some people might experience physical sensations associated with emotional numbness.
- Difficulty with memory or concentration: Emotional shutdown can affect cognitive functions.
- Lack of interest or motivation: Activities that once brought pleasure might not hold the same appeal.
- Frequent vague or unexplained physical symptoms may include headaches, stomach aches, or fatigue.
- Emotional exhaustion: A feeling of being emotionally drained all the time.
- Indifference towards plans: They might not care or envision future events or outcomes.
- Inability to express emotions: Difficulty in expressing feelings or emotions when it is usually appropriate.
Emotional Shut down As A Self Coping Mechanism
Emotional shutdown often serves as a self-coping mechanism, a way for the mind to protect itself from emotional discomfort or trauma. When we encounter situations beyond our emotional capacity, our brain may temporarily switch off our emotions, creating a state of emotional shutdown or disconnect. This is akin to the body’s physical response to danger—fight or flight; only in this case, it’s fight, flight, or freeze.
While this emotional withdrawal may provide immediate relief, enabling us to navigate a stressful situation, it can become problematic if it becomes a chronic response. Over time, frequent emotional shutdowns can lead to various mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, and may also harm our ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. Understanding this can be the first step toward developing more beneficial coping strategies and emotional resilience.
Why do people get emotionally shut down?
Interpersonal conflicts and dysfunctional relationships can trigger an emotional shutdown, leaving us feeling helpless, frustrated, and disconnected. Constant arguments, criticism, or emotional neglect can take their toll, leaving us longing for safety and understanding.
For some, certain mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or personality disorders can make emotional shutdown more likely. These conditions can make it challenging to process and communicate emotions effectively, intensifying the need to withdraw.
Societal and cultural factors play a role in the emotional shutdown. In societies that view emotional expression as a weakness, conforming to these expectations can lead to shutting down our emotions.
Understanding the root causes of the emotional shutdown is vital. It empowers us to develop effective coping strategies and seek our needed support.
John Gottman Theory
John Gottman, a preeminent psychologist and relationship expert, identifies emotional shutdown, also known as stonewalling, as one of the “Four Horsemen” that can predict relationship failure.
According to Gottman, individuals resort to emotional shutdown or numbness to escape overwhelming emotions during high-stress or high-conflict situations. This coping mechanism can create feelings of rejection and isolation in the other partner, further escalating the conflict.
Gottman suggests that the antidote to stonewalling is self-soothing, where the person feeling overwhelmed takes a break to calm down and reduce intense emotions before returning to the conversation.
What is Stonewalling?
Stonewalling is a defensive communication tactic often used during heated discussions or arguments. A person is said to be stonewalling when they deliberately avoid engaging in a conversation, sharing pertinent information, or addressing issues.
This can manifest as giving the silent treatment, being unresponsive, or evading questions. While it’s a common phenomenon in interpersonal relationships, stonewalling can lead to a breakdown in communication and exacerbate conflicts if not addressed.
Causes of Stonewalling
- Causes of Stonewalling:
- Response to intense conflict or criticism
- Protection mechanism against perceived threats or overwhelm
- A coping mechanism to avoid emotional discomfort
- Relationship dynamics and avoidance of confrontations
- Personal temperament and past experiences
- Coping strategy for individuals with certain personality traits or those who have experienced trauma or rejection
- Influenced by societal norms and expectations, such as self-reliance and stoicism
- Understanding the causes helps in recognizing and seeking appropriate support or intervention.
Often, stonewalling is a behaviour adopted during one’s formative years. It could be a strategy witnessed by parental figures to maintain harmony within the family or assert control over family dynamics. Despite the seemingly intentional and confrontational nature of stonewalling, it’s critical to understand that it’s frequently employed by individuals grappling with powerlessness or low self-esteem. Stonewalling might serve as a coping mechanism in these cases, providing an avenue for compensating for such feelings.
Emotional Shutdown in Arguments
Emotional shutdown during arguments can take various forms:
- Conversational Disengagement
- Defensive Shutdown
- Aggressive Shutdown
- Indifferent Shutdown
- Manipulative Shutdown
1. Conversational Disengagement
Conversational disengagement refers to the act of withdrawing from a conversation, limiting participation, or avoiding meaningful interaction during a discussion. This behaviour often manifests as a coping method during challenging or uncomfortable conversations, but it can stifle communication and create barriers to resolving conflicts.
- Silent Treatment: This is a common form of conversational disengagement where an individual responds to discussion or argument with silence, refusing to contribute further.
- Ignoring: This involves not acknowledging the other person’s statements or questions, demonstrating a lack of interest or concern for the conversation.
- Physical Disengagement occurs when an individual physically removes themselves from the discussion, such as leaving the room or turning away.
- Changing the Subject: Here, the individual deliberately shifts the topic of conversation to avoid addressing the current issue or argument.
- Using Electronic Devices: A person may turn their attention to electronic devices, such as smartphones or laptops, signalling a lack of engagement in the ongoing discussion.
2. Defensive Shutdown
Defensive shutdown refers to becoming overly defensive and refusing to listen to the other person’s point of view during a conversation or argument. It’s a self-protective mechanism that individuals resort to when they feel attacked or criticized, but it hinders open and healthy communication.
- Denial: This involves outright denying the existence of an issue or problem. The individual refuses to acknowledge the situation, which prevents any progress toward resolution.
- Deflection: Instead of addressing the issue, the individual shifts the blame to another person or situation. This avoids responsibility and can create additional conflict.
- Rationalization: Here, the individual justifies their actions or behaviour rather than acknowledging the other person’s feelings or perspective. They create logical, yet often inaccurate, explanations for their behaviour.
- Counter-attack: This involves responding to a perceived attack with an attack of their own. Instead of addressing the issue, the person strikes back, escalating the conflict.
- Victimizing Self: This is when the individual portrays themselves as the victim to divert blame and attention from their actions.
4. Aggressive Shutdown
Aggressive shutdown means ending a conversation or argument abruptly by resorting to aggressive behaviours or tactics. It often stems from anger, frustration, or inability to communicate one’s thoughts and feelings effectively. This approach disrupts open and healthy communication, escalating conflicts and damaging relationships.
- Yelling: One of the most common forms of aggressive shutdown, yelling involves raising one’s voice to an excessive volume. This is often used to express anger or frustration and to intimidate the other party into silence.
- Sarcasm: In this case, the individual uses sarcastic remarks or humour as a form of passive-aggressive behaviour to undermine the other person’s viewpoint.
- Over-Talk: This type of aggressive shutdown occurs when one party continuously talks without allowing the other the chance to speak, effectively suppressing their perspective.
- Dismissive Comments: These are sarcastic, belittling, or dismissive comments that invalidate the other person’s point of view, feelings, or concerns.
- Threats: In extreme cases, the individual may resort to threats or other forms of intimidation to forcefully end the conversation or argument.
5. Indifferent Shutdown
Indifferent shutdown refers to the act of emotionally distancing oneself during a conversation or argument, showing a lack of interest or concern in the topic or the other party’s feelings. This can be a defence mechanism to avoid discomfort or confrontation, but it can also indicate a lack of respect or empathy, which disrupts healthy communication.
- Disinterest: The individual may show a blatant lack of interest in the conversation by not responding appropriately or displaying nonchalant behaviour. This can be perceived as dismissive or uncaring.
- Superficial Responses: One form of indifferent shutdown is responding with simple or generic answers, such as “whatever” or “I don’t care,” which indicate a lack of engagement or investment in resolving the issue.
- Body Language: An individual might employ closed-off body language, such as crossed arms or averted gaze, to signal disengagement from the conversation.
- Monosyllabic Answers: Giving short, one-word answers is another common way to exhibit indifferent shutdown. Such responses inhibit in-depth discussion and convey detachment.
- Delayed or Unresponsive Communication: This involves not answering questions timely or not responding at all, signifying indifference to the conversation or the individual concerned.
6. Manipulative Shut down
Manipulative shutdown refers to the use of manipulative tactics to control a conversation or argument. It involves deceitful or exploitative behaviour to steer the discussion in a desired direction, often to avoid responsibility, alter perceptions, or gain an unfair advantage. This approach can harm communication dynamics, fostering mistrust and resentment.
- Gaslighting: This involves the manipulative tactic of causing someone to question their memory, perception, or sanity, thereby diverting the focus of the conversation.
- Guilt Tripping: The individual uses guilt to control or influence the conversation. They may suggest that the other party is causing them distress or disappointment, shifting the focus from the actual issue.
- Emotional Blackmail is when the person uses their or the other person’s emotions to pressure, intimidate or manipulate them into agreeing or giving in to their demands.
- Playing Dumb: In this case, the individual pretends not to understand the issue to avoid discussing or dealing with it.
- Diverting and Distorting: This involves changing the topic of conversation or distorting facts to suit one’s narrative, thereby leading the discussion astray.
Emotional Shut down As a Barrier to Self-Growth
The emotional shutdown can significantly obstruct personal growth and development. It acts as a barrier to self-understanding, hampers healthy communication, and restricts the ability to form and maintain fulfilling relationships. When an individual consistently relies on emotional shutdown as a coping mechanism, they may be stuck in a repetitive cycle of unproductive behaviour. This can lead to stagnation, preventing any meaningful personal or emotional growth.
Moreover, being unable to express or handle emotions effectively can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and mental health issues if left unchecked. Overcoming emotional shutdown fosters emotional intelligence, resilience, and overall personal growth.
Overcoming Emotional Shutdown: Steps and Strategies
Overcoming emotional shutdown requires self-awareness, understanding, and effective communication. Here are some steps and strategies:
- Self-Awareness: Recognize when you are entering into a state of emotional shutdown. Pay attention to physical cues, like increased heart rate or feeling overwhelmed. Acknowledging these feelings can be the first step towards addressing them.
- Understanding the Root Cause: Identify the underlying issues or experiences that trigger an emotional shutdown. This could stem from past traumas or unresolved conflicts.
- Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques, like deep breathing or meditation, can help manage the immediate emotional response to the shutdown. It can also provide a calming effect, enabling better decision-making.
- Express Feelings Constructively: Instead of resorting to shutdown behaviours, strive to express your feelings and thoughts in an open, honest, and constructive manner. This could involve using “I” statements to express your feelings without blaming others.
- Seek Professional Help: If the emotional shutdown is causing significant distress or hindering your relationships, it might be beneficial to seek help from a mental health professional therapist can help. They can provide guidance, therapeutic strategies, and support to navigate these challenges.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q.1 Is shutting off a coping mechanism?
Yes, emotional shutdown or shutting off can be a coping mechanism. It’s a protective response triggered by the brain during overwhelming or distressing situations, shielding the individual from further emotional distress. This ‘freeze’ response helps to navigate through intense emotional states.
Q.2 Is shutting down a trauma response?
Yes, shutting down can indeed be a trauma response. This is often a survival mechanism that the brain uses to protect the individual from overwhelming or distressing emotions associated with a traumatic experience. It’s part of the body’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response, with ‘shutting down’ falling under the ‘freeze’ category. This means going into a state of emotional numbness or detachment to avoid further
Q.3 Why do I shut down emotionally during arguments?
As a defensive response to avoid immediate emotional discomfort or perceived conflict, this reaction can stem from fear of confrontation, unresolved past traumas, or difficulties in expressing emotions effectively. It serves as a self-protective measure to shield from further emotional distress.
Q.4 What is the 3-day rule after an argument?
The 3-day rule suggests allowing three days after a significant disagreement before discussing the issue again. This time allows emotions to cool down, gain perspective, and reflect on behaviour. However, it’s important to note that the ‘right’ time to revisit the conversation may vary. What matters is that both parties feel ready for a calm, constructive discussion.
Q.5 What to do when someone shuts down in an argument?
When someone shuts down in an argument, remaining calm and patient is crucial. Encourage open communication, expressing that their perspective is valued. Give them space if needed, and revisit the conversation when emotions have subsided. Offering reassurance and empathy can help in re-establishing dialogue.
Q.6 What causes stonewalling?
Stonewalling often arises from fear, discomfort, or a desire to avoid conflict, leading to withdrawal and non-responsive behaviour; instead, ask open-ended questions to avoid conflict.
Q.7 Why do I shut down during an argument?
During an argument, you may shut down as a defensive mechanism to protect yourself from potential conflict or emotional discomfort. This can be due to fear of confrontation, unresolved past traumas, or difficulty effectively expressing your emotions, resulting in a retreat into emotional withdrawal.
- Fischer DJ, Fink BC. Clinical processes in behavioral couples therapy. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2014;51(1):11-4. doi:10.1037/a0033823(opens in a new tab)Fischer DJ, Fink BC. Clinical processes in behavioral couples therapy. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2014;51(1):11-4. doi:10.1037/a0033823
- Haase CM, Holley SR, Bloch L, Verstaen A, Levenson RW. Interpersonal emotional behaviors and physical health: A 20-year longitudinal study of long-term married couples. Emotion. 2016;16(7):965-977. doi:10.1037/a0040239(opens in a new tab)Haase CM, Holley SR, Bloch L, Verstaen A, Levenson RW. Interpersonal emotional behaviors and physical health: A 20-year longitudinal study of long-term married couples. Emotion. 2016;16(7):965-977. doi:10.1037/a0040239