What Is Emotional Numbing?

Emotional Numbing: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Coping

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In This Article

Emotional numbness is something most people will experience at some point in their life. Quite often, the feeling is temporary. However, for some, feeling emotionally numb becomes a way of life to protect from further emotional or physical pain. Emotions are a critical part of how we function in life. In fact, one study found that people reported experiencing at least one emotion 90% of the time, with positive emotions being reported over 2.5 times more frequently than negative emotions. Not only do emotions provide automatic feedback that can help keep you safe, but they can also motivate you to take action and empower you to make decisions.

But when you’re overwhelmed or feeling helpless, it's not uncommon to turn to emotional numbing since it provides you with a protective defense. While this may provide temporary relief, learning to cope with difficult feelings this way can have long-lasting consequences. 

What Is Emotional Numbing?

“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, Ph.D., LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center. Often times, emotional numbing results in temporary restrictions in the capacity to feel or express emotions. 

"While emotional numbing blocks or shuts down negative feelings and experiences, it also shuts down the ability to experience pleasure, engage in positive interactions and social activities, and interferes with openness for intimacy, social interests, and problem-solving skills," she adds.

Ultimately, it becomes a coping tool defined by avoidance, denial, detachment, and dismissal that blocks capacity for confronting, processing, problem-solving, and managing of emotions and experiences.

The symptoms of emotional numbing include:

  • A loss of interest in important, once positive activities you used to enjoy
  • Feeling distant or detached from others
  • Feeling flat, both physically and emotionally
  • Losing access to your feelings
  • An inability to fully participate in life
  • Having difficulty with experiencing positive feelings such as happiness or love

Additionally, when you’re emotionally numb, isolation can be a preferred state of living.

What Causes Emotional Numbing?

Emotional numbing 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 with your life, but over time, 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.

How one person experiences emotional numbness may look completely different from how you present with symptoms. That’s because people experience feeling emotionally numb in many different ways. For example, you may struggle to connect with others or lose the ability to feel sadness or joy in response to certain events.

There are a variety of reasons you may experience emotional numbing. Some of the more common causes of emotional numbing include:

Feeling emotionally numb may also be a side effect of taking 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.

Emotional numbing is most often seen with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a psychiatric disorder that can happen as a result of experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event.  When this happens, the person often has intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the event that can last for months or even years after the event is over.

In order to cope with the trauma from an event, some people will turn to emotional numbing or avoidance as a way to manage the emotional and physical pain. For people with PTSD, this can also manifest in avoiding thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event and places or people that bring the event to mind. 

Individuals diagnosed with anxiety disorders may also experience emotional numbness as a response to extremely high-stress levels, fear reactions, or excessive worry. In fact, avoidance of both positive and negative emotions is associated with higher levels of anxiety. 

Additionally, Mendez points out that depressive episodes may present with decreased attunement to feelings, dulling of emotions, and emotional numbing. 

"Higher levels of depression and mood dysregulation result in a greater propensity for emotional numbing," she adds.

Treatment Options

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 Mendez, is to stimulate an understanding of the problem and expose viable and effective problem-solving alternatives. Additionally, participation in psychotherapy may also support learning and use of productive coping tools such as allowing feelings to surface and processing them in the safe, nurturing environment of the therapeutic relationship. Whichever therapy you choose, getting help can provide you with a safe place to express and approach your emotions. 

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 also addresses how certain thoughts or ways of evaluating a situation may be contributing to your emotions.

“Learning and practicing cognitive-behavioral strategies for managing stress, traumatic experiences, depression, and anxiety can help tame negative thoughts and avoid defensive patterns of coping that are inefficient and invalidating of emotional processing and problem-solving,” explains Mendez.

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

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 numbing and avoidance as a symptom. 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. 

Lifestyle Modifications

In addition to psychotherapy, your doctor or therapist may also recommend several lifestyle modifications to help relieve some of the symptoms of emotional numbing, 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 examples you can try on your own. 

  • Find your 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. 
  • Exercise and 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. This is especially true for mental health issues since insufficient sleep can make coping with the stressors of life more challenging. While waking 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 numbing. Finding ways to better manage stress is key to addressing the avoidance of emotions and feelings. Relaxation and mindfulness-based strategies are helpful in decreasing the effects of stress. Engaging in relaxation exercises, particularly body awareness exercises, says Mendez, can be very helpful for awakening sensations, feelings and regulation of emotions.
  • Try mindfulness strategies.Mindfulness strategies may be particularly helpful in reducing emotional numbing and increasing emotional strength and competence to manage stressful experiences,” says Mendez. Consider validating emotions as this process demystifies feelings and allows for control over overwhelming and disorganized thoughts and feelings.  

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 your 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 your 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. 

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Article Sources

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