When Stress Makes You Go Quiet


Heb je weleens moeite om je gedachten en emoties uit te drukken als je onder druk staat? Of merk je dat je kort antwoordt om stressvolle discussies te vermijden?

Herken je die momenten waarop je wilt schreeuwen, maar uiteindelijk verstijft terwijl je gedachten overuren draaien?

Je terugtrekken in stilte is een gangbare reactie op bedreigingen, of het nu om gevaarlijke verkeerssituaties of een boze baas gaat. Maar waarom gebeurt dit en heeft het ook positieve effecten?

If you’re like many people and turn quiet in stressful situations, this article and Stress! Coaching Card are perfect for you. Learning the causes of stress-induced silence is the first step toward more helpful coping mechanisms, so keep reading to find out how it works and how you can manage it.

Why Do We Go Quiet When We’re Stressed?

It may not seem like a primeval response, but retreating into silence probably helped our ancestors survive in the face of danger!

Like becoming distrustful, sarcasm, and many other symptoms, that’s because it’s an unconscious, often automatic reaction to perceived danger. While we may not face the same physical threats as our ancestors, this instinct has lived on in our DNA. As such, anything we view as stressful can cause us to clam up, from a public speech to a performance review at work.

Beyond “it’s instinctive,” one psychological reason we shut down verbally is that we’re hoping to reduce or survive the threat or stressor. For example:

  • By staying quiet while that furious boss rants on, we might subconsciously be trying to avoid making them more angry
  • By keeping our opinions hushed up, we may be trying to avoid the anxiety of possible ridicule or embarrassment
  • By going tight-lipped during a heated argument, we may be buying ourselves time to process our thoughts rather than react immediately.

Zipping up in these scenarios can be a way to avoid already difficult situations from becoming more challenging, and so we lapse into quiet as a means to protect ourselves.

From a scientific perspective, there may also be a neurological basis for hushing up in stressful environments or situations. Neuroimaging studies reveal that stress can potentially interfere with brain areas that control speech production, because basic tasks like staying alive come over higher-order functions like communication we’re in fight-flight-freeze mode.

This is why you’ll see “survival areas” like the brainstem and limbic system light up on neuroimaging charts during stressful moments. At the same time, the Broca’s area, Wernicke’s area, and other speech production zones become less active. This all leads to potential difficulties articulating thoughts and feelings when things heat up, which explains why we’re less verbally communicative than usual.

Now that we’ve seen why it can happen, what impact does it have on how we function?

The Impact of Going Silent Under Pressure

Given the many potential reasons that we go quiet just above, you might be wondering whether this reaction is harmful at all.

The truth is that withdrawing into silence can help us avoid conflict or further stress, but it can also be self-sabotaging in the longer term.

We can expect some detrimental effects when hushing up becomes our go-to response to every stressor:

  • Our behavior might be interpreted as disinterest or disengagement
  • Others may find us difficult to communicate with
  • It can lead to feelings of isolation, when we feel as though we can’t share our thoughts or opinions with others.

The Withdrawing Into Silence Stress! Coaching Card is a helpful reminder that you can manage this response before it starts to impact your relationships.

Rather than letting this instinct control you, use the card and the three tips below to take the lead.           

3 Tips To Manage Stress-Induced Silence

Here are three helpful ways to manage stressful situations when you feel like “going silent” isn’t the answer!

1. Mental Rehearsal

We often default into silence because we don’t feel ready, confident, or in control enough to manage the situation any other way. One way to overcome this is by preparing yourself mentally ahead of time.

Follow these steps to mentally rehearse your response to a stressful situation before it happens, the same way many athletes do before a big competition!

  • Identify the Stressful Situation: When or where do you frequently find yourself hushing up? A few examples include work meetings, tough conversations, or presenting in front of important stakeholders.
  • Visualize the Scene: Close your eyes and try to imagine everything about the situation. How does it look, sound, or even smell? Who’s there? Where are you?
  • Rehearse Your Response: Visualize what you would say and how you would sound (hint: confident!). Picture yourself as calm and tranquil, even if the situation gets tough.
  • Practice regularly: Keep it up. Eventually, your rehearsed response will feel entirely natural when that challenging situation pops up!

2. Expressive Writing

Stress-induced silence shouldn’t stop you from expressing your feelings, and one way to do that is through expressive writing. Remember, you can always keep your thoughts entirely private.

Expressive writing is a therapeutic technique that can easily become a daily habit and help you overcome the tendency to withdraw verbally. Here are some tips to help you practice:

  • Set aside time for your expressive writing: 15 minutes a day is a good place to start. This can be especially helpful in the lead-up to a potentially stressful event, because writing is a great way to vent your feelings and feel better.
  • Write about your feelings: E.g., Why do you think you go silent? How does it make you feel?
  • Explore potential alternatives: What would you say if you didn’t go tight-lipped? How else might you react instead?
  • Reflect: Write about stressful situations and your reaction after they have occurred. Why  did you zip up? How might you approach things differently next time? Be kind to yourself!

3. Non-Verbal Communication

Not all of our communication takes place through words—gestures, expressions, and more can all be used to show that you’re interested, listening, and involved.

Think of some ways you might demonstrate your participation and engagement the next time you feel like going quiet. What about nodding, eye contact, or an open posture?

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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