Why Do I Shut Down When I’m Upset?

Why Do I Shut Down When I'm Upset

Numerous individuals experience a phenomenon where they emotionally disconnect during times of distress.

The reasons behind this response vary widely. It might serve as a protective mechanism, stem from difficulties in handling negative emotions, or relate to experiences of dissociation.

These are merely a few examples of the factors that can lead to an emotional shutdown in stressful situations.

Understanding one’s own patterns of behavior often begins with professional guidance, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offered by a qualified mental health professional. Nevertheless, taking the initiative to learn about one’s own reactions is a significant first step towards achieving emotional equilibrium.

This article aims to shed light on some of the reasons people emotionally shut down when upset and offers strategies for addressing this challenge.

Why Do People Shut Down Emotionally?

Shutting down emotionally when overwhelmed is a common response. It occurs when a person is unable to process the intense emotions they are experiencing. This can happen for a variety of reasons, such as past traumas, stress, or anxiety. Emotional shutdowns can also be a sign of a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. For further insight into coping with intense emotions, consider reading 10 exercises that give you the mental health boost you need.

Emotional Shutdown As A Self Defense Mechanism 

When you are feeling overwhelmed by emotion, or experiencing intense stress, there are two things that happen.

First, your body experiences a change in blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and other vital signs. Second, your brain releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

These hormones help prepare you for action. However, these hormones can also make you feel more tired, anxious, and stressed.

When you experience a lot of stress, your body responds by releasing excess amounts of cortisol and adrenaline.

If you overreact to these hormones, your body may become exhausted and shut down. For example, if you wake up early on a weekend morning and go straight to work without eating breakfast, you might become very hungry later on.

Your body reacts by producing cortisol and adrenaline. You may not even realize how much energy you have until you start working. In addition, you may feel exhausted and need to take naps during the day.

This is what happens when you shut down. Shutting down is a natural human response to overwhelming stress. To better understand how your body responds to stress and ways to manage it, read How to get rid of anxiety nausea.

But, Why Do People Emotionally Shut Down As A Self Defense Mechanism?

People who shut down when they’re upset don’t feel like they have any choice but to shut down. They feel helpless because they cannot control their feelings.

They think they should be able to control their emotions; however, they simply cannot. In order to cope with the emotions, they may avoid the situation or try to distract themselves.

Part of this involves shutting down emotionally and distancing themselves from the stressful emotions and feelings.

For example, many people turn off their phones during difficult conversations. They want to avoid having to hear angry words, so they block out thoughts of anger. Others choose to avoid certain topics or people entirely.

In this case, people do not feel like it is safe for them to talk about their emotions, or they simply do not know how to process the emotions or talk about them.

In order to survive the stressful situation, the individual feels it is safer to ‘switch off’.

Shutting Down Emotionally Due To Dissociation 

shutting down emotionally

Another reason you may shut down in an argument is due to dissociation.

Dissociation is very different from shutting down as a self-defense mechanism, but the two issues can be linked.

Dissociative disorders include symptoms such as depersonalization (feeling detached from yourself), derealization (feeling disconnected from reality).

These disorders occur when someone’s mind becomes separated from his/her physical body.

However, it is also common for people with depression, PTSD, and extreme anxiety disorders to experience dissociation.

Dissociation is usually a response to trauma. If there was a distressing situation, or traumatic, and you were unable to cope, your body may react by undergoing dissociation. You may also like our article How to talk about trauma in therapy.

This is not a willing state, it is involuntary. It occurs when the brain is too overwhelmed. As a way to cope, dissociation occurs to suppress pain and trigger memories.

In such a situation, one will feel very disconnected from reality. In certain cases, people can experience brain fog and can forget memories, or what they were doing just a couple of minutes ago.

When people ‘shut down’ with dissociation, they are not shutting down in a conventional sense. Their body is undergoing a trauma response to keep them safe from emotions they are not ready to process.

It may, however, feel like shutting down due to the disconnect that is experienced.

A therapist will be able to help with dissociation, where trauma or distressing memories can be examined in a safe environment. Doctors may also administer tablets to help with distressing and upsetting feelings.

Emotional Shutdown: Stonewalling In Relationships 

emotional shutdown

It could be that you do not experience shutting down when you are upset, but instead, when you are upset with a partner, or someone you have some relation to.

This could be a family member, a friend, a member with authority, and so forth.

This means that a general feeling of upset may not cause you to shut down, but negative emotions and confrontations with another person may cause you to shut down.

Furthermore, this can happen if you are experiencing a relationship conflict. You may feel hurt, embarrassed, frustrated, etc. When you are feeling these emotions towards another person, you may start to shut down.

This can make communication hard, as you may become defensive, and not open up. The other person may then feel that you are being unresponsive, and shut down themselves.

This can lead to a cycle of both parties becoming emotionally shut down.

The reason someone shuts down could be varied, but there are a couple of common reasons. Sometimes there is a belief that they cannot deal with the situation, due to upset, or a fear of rejection.

It could be a way to defuse the situation. It may, however, be a tactic of manipulation. This can be unconsciously, or conscious, as a way to either control the situation. You may also like our article on how to respond to a manipulative apology.

When it comes to resolving this pattern, the only way to break this cycle is to communicate your needs and desires.

It is important to understand why you shut down, and ask yourself what you require. Then, work on communicating with your partner, and working through any problems that arise.

It is very reasonable to consult a therapist or a relationship therapist. There is no shame, and it will improve your ability to deal with emotions, as well as, hopefully, preserve the relationships.

In relationships, an emotional shutdown can create a barrier between partners. When one person shuts down, they may become distant and less responsive to their partner’s needs. This can lead to misunderstandings and a breakdown in communication, leaving both parties feeling frustrated and unfulfilled.

Why Do I Shut Down Emotionally in Relationships?

When someone shuts down emotionally, it can be confusing and hurtful for both parties involved. So, what does it mean when someone shuts down? It often means that they are feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with their emotions. This emotional shutdown can be a defense mechanism to protect themselves from emotional pain or stress.

Overcoming Emotional Shutdowns in Relationships

It’s important to recognize the signs of an emotional shutdown and work together to overcome it. Here are some steps to help:

  1. Communicate openly: Share your feelings and thoughts with your partner. This can help build trust and understanding.
  2. Practice empathy: Try to see the situation from your partner’s perspective. This can help you understand their feelings and actions better.
  3. Seek professional help: If emotional shutdowns persist, consider seeking therapy or counseling to address any underlying issues.


If you find that you are shutting down, it is possible that you are dealing with some form of emotional distress. Your body may be reacting to something, or you may be processing an emotion that has been triggered.

You should seek professional support. A therapist can help identify triggers, and how to cope with situations.

About our Author Michelle Landeros, LMFT license# 115130
Author: Michelle Landeros, LMFT

Michelle Landeros is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist (LMFT). She is passionate about helping individuals, couples and families thrive.

Last updated: June 16, 2024