Why do I shut down emotionally?

Being cut off from your emotions can have a devastating impact on your personal life and relationships. It affects your confidence and self-awareness, as well as how you interact and communicate with others. You may feel numb or disembodied at times - unable to connect to your bodily sensations, express your emotions or maintain feelings of intimacy.


When you experience episodes of detachment, this is known as 'dissociation', leading to a gradual withdrawal from your life, as you become socially isolated and unable to form loving relationships. If this happens over a long period of time, the things you once loved may feel very hollow, your relationships become meaningless and your work is no longer fulfilling anymore. 

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is not something you choose to do consciously. It is often an unconscious response to trauma or distressing events that you have internalised. A kind of body memory that has become frozen because you shut down and were unable to process your emotions at the time.

For example, somewhere in your past, you may have been too vulnerable to cope with a distressing experience - such as long periods of neglect and loneliness as a child, physical or sexual abuse, an unexpected bereavement or witnessing horrific events in your life. This may be an issue with regard to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also happen if, as a child, your parents were highly anxious, aggressive or discharged their distress in the family home. 

Under these stressful conditions, you do not choose to shut down your emotions, your brain is often too overwhelmed to cope and protects itself by suppressing the pain and powerlessness of not being able to adapt. As a result of this disconnection, you may suffer from feelings of emptiness inside or a sense of dread that you cannot shake off. Slowly, you lose your passion for life or any personal interest in things that once stirred you with joy and excitement. 

Unable to understand what is happening to you in this frozen state, you may learn to internalise your frustrations and anger, while experiencing dread without knowing why. Your anxiety and anger get so locked in, you avoid challenging situations or confrontations with others. Then, you only express it in occasional outbursts of rage or withdrawal when it becomes unbearable. Friends and family may find it almost impossible to talk with you, or as you become more detached, they may find it difficult to empathise and connect with you. While loved ones may accuse you of being cold and aloof.

Why do people shut off emotionally?

Shutting down emotions can be a normal part of human experience, as a coping strategy in stressful situations. Under high stress, it allows your body and brain to protect itself from perceived threats or harm.

We can also become emotionally detached after a painful bereavement, an episode of anxiety, or a prolonged period of depression. For mothers with postnatal depression, you may feel cut off from maternal instincts toward your child. This leads to a profound sense of guilt and shame about not being a good enough parent.

Dissociation can overwhelm your ability to make everyday decisions, especially if you have a 'freeze' response to anxiety. You may become confused, procrastinate for hours, or get distracted by other tasks, rather than focus on the one in front of you.

It can make you feel defensive when responding to friends and family, even if you long for closeness. You may feel their gentle enquiries are intrusive and unwelcome - like you are trapped or smothered by them. And you may find it increasingly difficult to trust other people's motives, being preoccupied with their thoughts about you. Paranoid thinking goes hand-in-hand with dissociation, as you sink further and further into your own dark thoughts.

Is emotional shutdown a choice?

Although being cut off from your emotions is not usually a choice, it follows an unconscious pattern of avoidance. The more you avoid things, the less you feel, the less you tolerate your emotions. And so spins the never-ending cycle.

For example, you may not attend family gatherings or social occasions you would have normally enjoyed. And you may become hypervigilant - looking, listening, analysing - in order to defend against painful experiences or show emotional vulnerability. You may find it difficult to validate your personal aspirations or ambitions at work. Or, unable to say no to a pushy colleague or manager, in order to pacify their constant demands. While the responsibilities, duties and conflicts of family life become intolerable.

How to reconnect to your emotions

One way of reconnecting with these feelings and emotions is to learn mindfulness with a counsellor. Someone who is willing to offer empathy and work with you in a practical way, re-sensitising you to your bodily sensations and emotions in a safe way. Helping you to learn how to become more grounded, develop emotional awareness and reconnect with others. As well as challenging you to commit to the process even when you find it difficult and demanding. 

Mindfulness of breathing will help you trust your feelings as a source of understanding, rather than fixating on being out of control or irrational. It will allow you to create the space to get out of your head and into your body. It allows you to discharge your stress in healthy ways and look after your well being. Over time, you will become more confident in your own substance, your bodily sensations and emotional insight. Welcome back to the world of joy, pain and connectedness.

Ready to speak with a counsellor? Contact Greg or use our advanced search to find a qualified, experienced therapist online or in-person near you. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW2 & TW1
Written by Gregori Savva, Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree
Twickenham TW2 & TW1

I am Greg Savva. An experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, EnduringMind. I believe in a compassionate, supportive approach to counselling as the best way forward for my clients. I focus on helping you make sense of erratic thoughts and emotions. Offering you a chance to gain self-awareness and change for the better www.enduringmind.co.uk

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