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Why do I Shut Down Whenever I Get Overwhelmed?

Have you ever noticed that when you were feeling particularly emotional and overwhelmed, you suddenly shut down your thoughts, feelings, and sensory input? If you have, then you might be interested in knowing that this is a technique of self-protection. A way of keeping yourself safe; of feeling safer in the moment.


At its heart, shutting down like this is a type of dissociation. If you recall from a previous blog, dissociation is a type of psychic or emotional numbing. Often, we begin dissociating following a trauma, especially if it is severe trauma or if it occurred to us as a child. It has been speculated that this occurs as a form of self-protection that is done automatically by your parasympathetic system. This is the system that works together with the sympathetic system- the sympathetic system starts up your fight-flight-freeze response, and the parasympathetic system shuts it down so your system can return to normal. When you first start disassociating, it can be helpful in the face of overwhelming emotion, and you will feel better. Then, after you notice this, you are more likely to dissociate again, and after doing this for years, it can become unhelpful and maybe even harmful.

How is Shutting Down Harmful?

Shutting down emotionally can be harmful to you and your relationships in a number of different ways. Below I’ve listed a few for you to think about:

1. It can hurt your relationships because it might give your loved one the impression that you don’t care about them or their feelings.

2. You can start to lose your sense of empathy losing your ability to fully understand what others are feeling. This is because empathy comes out of your experience with your own emotions and so if you are numbing all your feelings, you won’t have this experience to draw upon.

3. Our emotions can serve a protective function. They let us know when others are doing things that are harmful to us and that hurt us in some way. If you are numb to these cues, then you may remain in harmful relationships or situations longer than you might otherwise, causing increased harm to yourself.

4. An extension of the last consequence is that you might tolerate witnessing the abuse of others more easily than if you didn’t numb your feelings. This is because as social beings, we generally will experience negative feelings when witnessing someone else being abused. In some cases, witnessing someone else being abused can be more harmful than being abused ourselves. But if you numb out any feeling associated with what you have seen and heard, then it won’t necessarily bother you to see someone else’s abuse. This might lead you to allow abusive behavior to continue when you normally would not stand for it.

5. Emotional numbing or dissociation will also interfere with our ability to form meaningful, intimate relationships with others which will lead to increased loneliness in your life. Our relationships will become shallow or superficial and may become fully based on transactions rather than a true sharing of emotions.

6. Being emotionally numb may also interfere with your ability to care about issues that affect the world around you at large. If you are unable to experience emotions, then it will be difficult or impossible to care about things going on like homelessness, animal abuse, or pollution, and if you don’t care, then you are unlikely to try and do anything to make changes in these areas.

7. Chronic emotional numbing may lead to substance abuse, which really is just another way of numbing feelings for many who abuse them. Or the opposite might be true. Some people will abuse drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, engage in self-abuse, etc in order to feel something after being numb for so long.

So How Do I Stop Emotional Numbing?

Many people describe the process of emotional numbing as being automatic. It doesn’t feel like something they have any control other- it just is something that happens. But there are things that you can try to help this situation.

1. Start to identify when you are numbing your feelings. This is often the first step to identifying what feeling you were experiencing prior to the numbing of the emotions. Ask yourself what you felt right before you got numb. Name the emotion.

2. It might help you to identify your emotions by journaling with a focus on this issue. Again, try to name what you were feeling and what was happening to you when the feeling first came up.

3. Exercise has been getting a lot of good press lately and for good reasons. It will help you to cope with any feelings that you might be having difficulty coping with.

4. Try to stop using any substances or engaging in any addictive behaviors that you might be using as a harmful way of coping. This includes self-abusive behaviors such as cutting, pinching, or hitting yourself. Although these types of behaviors may feel like they’re helpful when you first started doing them, they are only harmful in the long run, and the sooner you are able to stop using them, the sooner you can find a truly healthy way of coping.

5. Talk with your family, friends, or other support. These relationships are so important in keeping you grounded and in helping you to move forward. People will often start to isolate themselves in addition to the emotional numbing so reestablishing these relationships can be doubly helpful. Try to start visiting with people again or engaging in the activities that you used to enjoy.

6. Practice mindfulness such as meditation, yoga, or any other mindfulness activity. This type of practice helps you to stay in the moment, even if it becomes uncomfortable.

7. It can be very scary to face your emotions after you’ve been numbing them for any amount of time. If the thought of facing your feelings seems overwhelming, find a therapist or other mental health professional to talk with about it. Especially if you have started dissociation or numbing as a result of past trauma. You will need to process this trauma in order to help you to move forward.

Closing Thoughts

Emotional numbing is one of those coping strategies that people start using because it is helpful in the short run, but that can quickly become harmful with chronic use. Although it might seem impossible to stop doing it because it seems like it happens outside of your conscious control, there are things that you can do to help. If you would like to talk with me further about this, or if you would like to talk about receiving trauma treatment, please follow the link! I would love to hear from you!


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