How To Stop Freezing And Holding Back In Arguments

Have you ever had an argument with someone, only to freeze up before you can actually get your point across? Even though there's so much you want to get off your chest; you just can't bring yourself to utter a word. As frustrating as this experience is, "getting stuck" during conflict is extremely common. Healthline explains that the phenomenon of freezing is a reaction to stress, the lesser-known cousin of the more common flight and fight responses.

From an evolutionary perspective, stress responses such as flight, fight, and freeze have been useful in ensuring human survival. Put simply, when the brain perceives a threat, it stimulates the automatic nervous system. This prompts the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can result in several symptoms, including a change in heart rate and cold hands or feet. These physiological effects have helped humans to either flee danger, fight danger, or "hide" from danger through the freeze response. However, when your stress response is overactive, you can end up freezing in situations where you're actually not in any danger at all, such as during an argument with a loved one.

Ashley explains that there's also a similar stress response called fawning, which involves conflict avoidance and the inability to stand up for yourself when you feel threatened. This reaction may also cause you to hold back during arguments. As frustrating as this instinctive behavior is, know that it's common and possible to treat.

Understanding why you freeze

If you freeze every time you have an argument, it's worth exploring when, where, and how you developed this overreactive stress response. According to The Guardian, this behavior can form during childhood, as a response to trauma, or even because you were conditioned not to express your views around family members. Getting to the bottom of why you react this way with a professional therapist can pave the way to reconditioning your natural response. Similarly, it can help to keep a list of the specific triggers that lead you to freeze and become aware of your patterns surrounding this behavior to fully understand why it's happening (via Orit Krug).

Speaking to The Guardian, psychotherapist Lynne Gabriel recommended cognitive behavioral therapy to rewire the brain's stress response tendencies. To cope with freezing or fawning in the meantime, you can also come up with a rehearsed line to say during arguments that will let the other person know that you aren't able to articulate yourself in the moment. Gabriel suggested a phrase along the lines of "I haven't got an answer now, but I will."

In general, it takes the body at least 20 minutes to revert back to normal after freezing. You can help the process along with relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and grounding yourself in the present moment (via Happier Human). To relax your body and avoid freezing up, try deep breathing as soon as the argument begins.

How to stop freezing over time

Responding to conflict with deep breathing, grounding, or rehearsed phrases can feel unnatural at first. Until you can train your brain to stop viewing healthy conflict as a threat, your automatic nervous system will react as though there's a real danger present. Stress responses are designed not to be ignored since your nervous system can't decipher between harmless arguments and a tiger chasing you. As such, you'll have to practice the new response of relaxing your body, repeating rehearsed holding phrases, and techniques learned in cognitive behavioral therapy. Practice them until they become second nature. Medical News Today writes that you can also dismantle the stress response by moving to a space where you feel less threatened. It can help to excuse yourself for a few minutes and calm yourself down in a safe place before returning.

You can take these actions to help you un-freeze during an argument, but there are also steps you can take to relieve stress and anxiety in general. For example, engaging in a regular yoga or exercise routine and talking about your feelings with friends can help to reduce your stress response when perceived threats appear in your life (via Dr. Soph). Depending on the underlying reasons behind your overactive freeze response, retraining your brain to react in a healthier way can take some work and may require professional assistance. However, relaxing your body can help you to regain control during arguments and articulate your true feelings.