What Is Emotional Numbness?

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Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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What Is Emotional Numbness?

Emotional numbness is a state of being in which you are not feeling or expressing emotions.

"Emotional numbing is the mental and emotional process of shutting out feelings and may be experienced as deficits of emotional responses or reactivity," explains Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center.

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. 

Symptoms of Emotional Numbness

The symptoms of emotional numbness include:

  • Experiencing an inability to fully participate in life
  • Failing to access your feelings
  • Feeling distant or detached from others
  • Feeling flat, both physically and emotionally
  • Having difficulty with experiencing positive feelings such as happiness
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Preferring isolation rather than being with others

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.

Causes of Emotional Numbness

Feeling emotionally numb can happen as a result of physical or emotional pain. In an attempt to protect yourself from being hurt again, it’s not uncommon to disconnect, detach, or numb out feelings related to the situation.

When this happens, you may feel temporary relief that allows you to move on. Over time, though, this protective shield can begin to get in the way of connecting with others and getting in touch with feelings that are both positive and negative.

There are a variety of reasons you might feel numb.

Anxiety

People diagnosed with anxiety disorders may experience emotional numbness as a response to extremely high stress levels, fear, or excessive worry. High levels of anxiety are linked with avoidance of positive and negative emotions.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

People with BPD may experience periods of emotional detachment or numbness. It may feel as though their feelings are not their own.

Grief

When coping with death, a person may go through a period where they feel completely disconnected from their emotions.

Depression

Dr. Mendez points out that people going through depressive episodes may be less attuned to their feelings, or experience a dulling of emotions. "Higher levels of depression and mood dysregulation result in a greater propensity for emotional numbing," she adds.

Medications

Feeling emotionally numb can be a side effect of some medications that treat depression and anxiety. If you’re taking an antidepressant and feeling emotionally numb, it’s essential to work closely with your doctor. They may choose to adjust your dosage or change the medication altogether.

Mental or Emotional Abuse

Studies show that people who were emotionally abused as children are more likely to experience emotional dysregulation, including emotional numbing, as adults.

Overwhelming Stress

Emotional numbness can result from high levels of stress. If you're feeling burnt out, emotionally or physically exhausted, or overwhelmed, you might feel detached from your feelings.

Physical Abuse

People who are physically abused may feel emotionally numb. Feeling numb can be a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with a dangerous and frightening situation.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Some people will turn to emotional numbing as a way to manage emotional and physical pain. For people with PTSD, this can manifest as avoiding thoughts, feelings, or conversations relating to a traumatic event.

Schizophrenia

People with schizophrenia may go through periods of time where they feel complete apathy or disinterest as well as emotional numbness or blunting.

Substance Misuse

People who misuse substances like marijuana or cocaine can alter the brain's reward system, making it harder to feel pleasure without the drug. Substance use can produce a detachment from one's emotions and an overall lack of motivation and interest.

"While emotional numbing blocks or shuts down negative feelings and experiences," Dr. Mendez says, "it also shuts down the ability to experience pleasure, positive interactions and social activities, and intimacy."

Treatment for Emotional Numbness

There are a variety of treatment options available that can help you reduce the extent to which you try to escape, disengage from, or avoid your emotions.

Once you find a therapist or psychologist to work with, the first step in the treatment process is unpacking the cause of your emotional numbing. A therapist can help you determine the underlying cause of the trauma, and come up with better ways to cope with overtaxing experiences and emotions. 

The primary goal of psychotherapy, says Dr. Mendez, is to stimulate an understanding of the problem and expose viable and effective problem-solving alternatives.

Psychotherapy may support the learning and the use of productive coping tools. You may learn to allow feelings to emerge and to process them in the safe environment of therapy.

Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

Learning and practicing cognitive-behavioral strategies for managing stress, traumatic experiences, depression, and anxiety can help tame negative thoughts.

— Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT

Whichever therapy you choose, getting help can provide you with a safe place to express and approach your emotions so that you're no longer feeling numb.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) gives you the opportunity to express and understand your emotions, as well as examine the sources of those emotional responses. It addresses how certain thoughts may be contributing to your emotions.

Rather than avoiding or using maladaptive coping tools (such as numbing), CBT strategies aim to empower you to shift from thoughts of powerlessness to beliefs of strength and emotional competence.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is another form of behavior therapy that is often used with PTSD and other mental health issues that have emotional numbness and avoidance as symptoms.

ACT uses a mindfulness-based approach to help you recognize ways in which you attempt to suppress or control emotional experiences. The goal of ACT is to help you experience your inner feelings while focusing attention on living a meaningful life.

Coping With Emotional Numbness

In addition to psychotherapy, your doctor or therapist may recommend several lifestyle modifications to help relieve some of the symptoms of emotional numbness, and hopefully, prevent more episodes from happening in the future.

While it may take a bit of trial and error, the key to the success of lifestyle modifications is to find what works best for you. Here are a few ideas you can try on your own. 

Develop a Support System

While reaching out to others may seem difficult at first, seeking social support from friends and family that you trust may help provide a safe way to express your emotions. 

Engage in Physical Activity

Staying physically active and engaging in exercises that you enjoy not only benefits your health, but it can also reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Try to include some form of exercise or physical activity most days of the week. 

Get Adequate Rest

Both the quality of sleep and the amount of rest are critical to managing the symptoms of any physical, emotional, or mental health issue. Insufficient sleep can make coping with the stressors of life more challenging.

While waking up during the night is common when dealing with PTSD, depression, anxiety, or any other trauma, try to get seven or more hours of sleep each night, which is the recommended amount for adults.

Minimize Stress

Both daily stressors and overwhelming stress are major contributors to emotional numbness. Finding ways to better manage stress is key to addressing the avoidance of emotions and feelings.

Try managing your schedule, being sure to make time for activities that you enjoy. Practice deep breathing, which can help provide almost immediate relaxation. Eat a nutritious diet.

It's also important to note that while some use drugs and alcohol to cope with stress, substances can contribute to greater stress levels. If you are struggling with substance use, talk to a doctor. They may recommend you attend counseling or a support group for additional support.

Use Mindfulness Strategies

"Mindfulness strategies may be particularly helpful in reducing emotional numbing and increasing emotional strength and competence to manage stressful experiences," says Dr. Mendez.

Engaging in relaxation exercises, particularly body awareness exercises, says Dr. Mendez, can be very helpful for awakening sensations, feelings, and regulation of emotions.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental health condition, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Learning new ways to cope with traumatic events, overwhelming stress, depression, anxiety, or any other serious life event is possible. Reaching out to a doctor is the first step to addressing emotional numbing. They can help you find a mental health professional trained in these areas.

By forming a support network with a doctor, mental health expert, and close family and friends, you can begin to change how you deal with trauma and learn to feel and experience your emotions, instead of feeling numb. 

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