Have you ever noticed that you feel (or have felt in the past) a little numb – like you aren’t processing information well and can’t access your emotions? That’s emotional numbness.
But are we supposed to block out our feelings this way? Indeed stoicism and rigidity have historically been over-valued, however as we move forward towards a culture of vulnerability and authenticity, isn’t being in touch with our emotions mandatory? Should we freely be able to access and understand how we feel on a routine basis?
What Is Emotional Numbness?
Emotional numbness is a state of being in which you are not feeling or expressing emotions. It’s a mental and emotional process of shutting out feelings so that there are perceived deficits of emotional responses or reactivity.
Quite often, feeling numb is temporary. However, for some, emotional numbness becomes a strategy to protect themselves from further emotional or physical pain. While it may provide temporary relief, learning to cope with difficult feelings this way can have long-lasting consequences.
People with emotional numbness might use strategies to resist confronting their emotions. Even if they’re doing it unconsciously, they might use avoidant behaviors and steer clear of certain people or situations. They might be in denial, which is a common defense mechanism people use to avoid emotional triggers and negative feelings.
Symptoms of Emotional Numbness
- Inability to express strong negative or positive emotions
- Inability to “fully participate” in life (i.e., feeling like you’re a passive observer)
- Feeling that life is like a dream (a sense of unreality)
- Living on autopilot
- Feeling empty inside / feeling devoid of emotion even in intense situations
- Feeling distant from others
- Dislike of people who express strong emotions (both positive and negative)
- Not feeling anything in situations that would usually generate strong emotion
- Physical and emotional numbness or “flatness”
- Losing interest in things you once enjoyed
- Feeling disconnected from yourself and others
- Failing to access your feelings
- Experiencing an inability to fully participate in life
- Having difficulty with and experiencing positive feelings such as happiness
- The tendency to withdraw from friends and family members (preferring isolation)
- A general sense that nothing matters
- Panic or terror when strong emotions eventually breakthrough
- The absence of care or concern for others or events in your life
- Being unable to experience and express the appropriate level of emotion in a given situation
- Persistent challenges concentrating
- A lack of motivation
Why do I feel nothing?
There’s no conclusive answer to this question, but experts have suggested that emotional numbness can occur when the limbic system is flooded with stress hormones. This is the area of the brain that deals with emotional regulation and memory. There’s an emotional component as well. High-stress situations can tax our emotions and exhaust the physical body. The combination of the two can lead to a feeling of being drained and consequently, numb.
Numbness may also be a coping mechanism to prevent more pain from entering the psyche. This is especially true for those in high-stress environments and those who have experienced trauma. The mental health conditions most often associated with emotional numbness are depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Why does someone become emotionally numb?
Emotional numbness is generally a survival mechanism or a protective response to trauma, stress, pain, or discomfort that we may experience emotionally or physically, and can be adopted at any point in our lives, including in our childhood.
Becoming emotionally numb may be a way of preventing intense emotions from overwhelming your ability to cope with a stressful situation. Numbing your emotions can be a practice that protects you in the moment, or remains with you long-term, depending on the challenges or stressors you face.
Similarly, there is a spectrum associated with emotional numbness, depending on the severity of the trigger or past event which has elicited this response.
Numbing emotions can become a way of feeling safe for many who have experienced overwhelming situations like traumatic incidents, physical or emotional abuse, unstable home environments, or bullying.
For example, someone who’s experienced emotional or physical rejection as a child may turn emotionally numb during childhood or later in life.
This is a coping mechanism used to survive and experience(s) as it allows the individual to block out any continuous emotional pain. This pain may present as an experience or memories of an experience.
Living with trauma may also lead some people to experience dissociation, which sometimes can look similar to emotional numbing. Trauma-related dissociation refers to a sense of separation or detachment from yourself and your thoughts and emotions. It’s a defense mechanism to protect yourself from overwhelming pain. By definition, it isn’t the same as emotional numbness.
As a coping mechanism, feeling emotionally numb may also serve as a way to lessen the pain associated with significant losses and grief. Specifically in cases where grief has been prolonged or has progressed into complicated grief, a deficit of emotional response (emotional numbness) often occurs.
Dissociation is also possible when experiencing intense grief and stress. It can be on a continuum from mild to more severe dissociation. Mild dissociation may look like emotional numbness.
You can feel overwhelmed to the point where your defense mechanisms kick in. Emotional numbing can be an attempt to escape an emotionally triggering situation in the moment as well as over long periods of time. This may mean being emotionally numb after an argument with your partner, for example, or turning emotionally numb for several months while you deal with a loved one’s terminal illness.
Mental health disorders
Feeling emotionally numb may also be a symptom of some mental health disorders, including:
- major depressive disorder or clinical depression
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- anxiety disorders
- dissociative disorders
Being emotionally numb may also be the result of brain-altering conditions, such as:
- substance use disorder
- side effects of medications
- brain injury
- degenerative brain disease
What to do when you feel numb
During periods of emotional numbness, you may not feel like doing much at all. Sometimes, just curling up in a blanket and making yourself comfortable can feel soothing. Other times, it can help to move around, talk with a friend, or release some pent-up emotion. We talk more about these methods below.
1. Move your body
Emotional numbness may feel like being “frozen” for some people. If this is the case for you, exercise might be the last thing on your mind. However, doing any form of physical movement is a great way to get out of your head and into your body. Try just walking around your room and shaking your arms out to connect with your body or put on a lively song and move to the music in a way that feels good. If you want to crank it up a gear, try working up a sweat with a bike ride, a brisk walk outdoors, swimming or some yoga. Regular exercise will get the endorphins flowing and perhaps help you feel more alive yet grounded in your body.
2. Creatively express your feelings
Creating something can be an effective way to open the door to your emotions. Doodling, painting, arranging flowers or find some other creative outlet for self-expression. Then, when you’re done, do you feel anything different? Journal around that.
3. Try grounding/anchoring exercises
If you feel numb and disconnected, it might help to gently bring your awareness to your body and your surroundings using grounding techniques. These techniques are often recommended for coping with PTSD and anxiety. Grounding can be physical or mental. Here are some ideas to try:
- Breathe deeply and notice your breath moving in and out of your body.
- Get outside and notice your surroundings. Where is there beauty?
- Touch a familiar object and notice how it feels in your hands. Is it heavy or light? What texture does it have? Does it feel warm or cool?
- Put on a favourite song and really listen to it. How does it make you feel?
4. Release pent-up anger
If you suspect that the emotional numbness has to do with repressed frustration, it’s important to process this emotion. Anger, left unexpressed, will poison your relationships, fill you with negativity and create chaos in your life. Here are some other ideas for releasing anger:
- Go to a beach or a lake and throw stones into the water
- Take kickboxing classes
- Book a day at a batting cage
- Yelling into or punching a pillow
- Driving to a remote location and yelling into the universe
- Write about your emotions with abandon until you feel a shift (and allow the tears to come)
5. Learn about emotions
Self-study can be an effective tool to become familiar with what you’re feeling. However in today’s busy lives it’s very easy to numb and distract ourselves with social media, TV, food, shopping and a host of other things that constantly cause us to look outside. It’s the process of looking inside that will force this connection to your emotions.
Dedicate space and time to getting in touch with how you’re feeling. Create a mood diary and jot down your emotions every day at the same time. Journal more – expand on the ideas.
6. Yoga and meditation
Yoga is a well-known way of helping to clear and balance your energy. Not only that, but yoga and meditation have a way of releasing stored emotions from the body.
Slow and gentle forms of yoga in combination with 10 minute intervals of meditation can be effective in reconnecting you with your emotional centers.
6. Take care of your inner child
Any trauma can cause us to default to emotional numbness. However it’s often trauma experienced by the child self that started this pattern of coping. Practice inner child work and find ways to comfort, nurture and heal this vulnerable place inside of you. You may even want to create empowering affirmations to help your inner child access their emotions.
Emotional numbness is one of the most pervasive coping methods in our society today. While it is generally socially acceptable, it’s a reflection of a society that largely doesn’t know how to handle strong emotions in healthy ways. Being stoic and “level-headed” is valued, but often this calmness is a facade that conceals an unhealthy detachment from one’s feelings.
While emotional numbness is very often a mechanism to buffer us during times of overwhelm or significant emotional stress, it can be a challenge to reconnect to how we feel. If we use this mechanism long enough, it might seem easier to feel nothing at all, or become emotionally numb. While it’s hard to be vulnerable, it’s also hard to keep everything bottled up inside. It can help to open up to someone you trust about what you’re going through. You might say something like, “I notice that lately that I don’t feel much of anything at all. Has this ever happened to you?”. Speaking with a trusted friend, advisor or Coach can often be the connection that you need to get back in touch with how you feel.
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Katrina Murphy is a Professional Intuitive Mindset and Confidence Coach in Ontario, Canada, serving clients across Canada and internationally. Katrina helps professionals to change the relationship that they have with themselves so they can reconnect both in their relationships and at work. She’s been featured in various publications and is the creator of the Power-Passion-Purpose Framework.