Our brains are hardwired with coping mechanisms that almost act as escape switches for situations where we are experiencing great emotional or physical distress. Our coping mechanisms are what protect us and help us manage both internal and external stressors that may cause us harm. But, there is a fine line between using a coping mechanism in a positive way and using maladaptive mechanisms that can potentially lead to other negative behaviors.
What Is Emotional Numbing?
People may revert to emotional numbing to protect themselves, but when that emotional numbing becomes an extended lifestyle choice that begins to affect their ability to live and their quality of life, then that coping mechanism becomes maladaptive and harmful. Emotional numbing is defined as the process of shutting out feelings and can be experienced through emotional deficits or restrictions in the capacity to feel or express emotions. As a coping tool, emotional numbing can manifest as avoidance, denial, and detachment and can actually prevent you from experiencing healthy processes of confrontation, problem-solving, and emotion management that are important avenues of growth for people.
Symptoms of Emotional Numbness
It can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint whether or not you’re experiencing emotional numbing, but if you feel like you’re moving through the motions of life with little to no enjoyment, or if you feel like you cannot connect with people normally because you just don’t feel like yourself, you may be experiencing emotional numbing. Some other signs that may indicate you are dealing with emotional numbing can be:
- Lack of interest in activities you once used to enjoy or that had positive effects on your life.
- Becoming distant or detached from friends, family members, and significant others.
- Being unable to access or process emotions and feelings.
- Feeling emotionally and physically flat.
- Being unable to fully participate in life and things that are enjoyable.
- Being unable to express feelings or having great difficulty in doing so.
- Preferring to be isolated rather than surrounded by others, even if those people are loved ones or friends you used to enjoy being around.
- Experiencing dissociation, or feeling like you are not connected to your body or thoughts.
- Feeling detached from reality or the world around you.
- Losing time or having a distorted sense of time.
- Feeling exhausted no matter how much sleep you get.
There is no one specific cause for why people experience emotional numbness, making it tricky to recognize. It is typically the result of high levels of stress that cause the brain to slip into survival mode, utilizing emotional numbing as a mechanism for coping with internal and external stressors. Though this can be useful, it can also drastically affect a person’s life, so knowing the cause of your emotional numbing can better explain what it is you’re going through and how best to treat it.
Some common reasons associated with emotional numbing include:
- Physical or Emotional Pain: The brain may numb itself to protect you from feeling intense amounts of pain or sadness or anxiety in situations that may be deemed traumatic.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): When someone experiences a specific situation that leads to PTSD, the brain will try to shut out any negative emotions, but this can also lead to shutting out the positive emotions as well which is why many people struggling with PTSD appear mentally or physically distant at times.
- Grief: Sometimes, when the grief that is felt becomes too much, the brain will numb itself to feelings to protect itself from the unpleasantness of sadness and loss. The brain doesn’t want to feel negative emotions, so instead, it will turn off the ability to process any emotions.
- Overwhelming Stress: Many people who experience intense anxiety, and even those who just have an episode of extreme stress, may experience some form of emotional numbing because of that stress. Our body’s response to stressors is a survival technique, however, too much anxiety for an extended period of time can lead to fatigue, depression, and emotional numbing.
- Depression: One of the side effects of depression is an inability to feel positive emotions, feeling drowsy, and not like yourself.
- Physical, Mental, or Emotional Abuse: A lot of trauma victims will experience emotional numbing to protect themselves from the experience that caused them so much pain. This is why sometimes people will forget what they experienced or only remember bits and pieces because their brain was trying to protect them from the trauma.
- Drug Addiction: Drugs can affect our emotions in a number of ways. Sometimes people abuse substances to stop feeling things like anxiety or depression, and sometimes the use of a drug can induce emotional numbing.
- Medications or Health Conditions: A side effect of some medications, especially those used to treat mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, or a side effect of some medical conditions may be emotional numbing or an inability to express one’s emotions.
How It’s Treated
Understanding the cause for your emotional numbing is the key to seeking treatment that will actually help. Because there is typically an underlying reason for that numbness, treating just your ability to feel emotions won’t solve the core problem and may cause a relapse of emotional numbing. Typically, seeing a therapist about your numbness is the first step in getting help because they will be able to pinpoint where the emotional numbing came from and how to best treat the source. If you don’t treat the underlying causes, such as PTSD, and you focus solely on treating one symptom, the likelihood of relapsing back into emotional numbness is high.
A therapist may suggest Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) depending on the underlying causes of your emotional numbing. Both therapies place emphasis on the internal thoughts and emotions that may have led to emotional numbness and help you learn to feel and accept those emotions without focusing on the negative aspects causing the numbing.
If the numbness comes from a medication or medical condition, your doctor may look to switch treatment plans to get rid of the negative side effects that are preventing you from feeling properly. A change in medications or in dosage may help to regulate your emotions back to normal, especially if those medications are for the treatment of anxiety or depression.
Other ways to improve emotional numbing and get back to your normal self are to incorporate exercise and a healthy diet into your day-to-day routine. Getting sufficient sleep is also important, and learning how to cope with and minimize stress can play a role in long-term emotional numbing remission. Continuing to see a therapist for emotion regulation is another effective tool in preventing emotional numbing in the future.
It is very possible to move past emotional numbing and reclaim your regular life. By addressing the causes and continuing to maintain healthy coping mechanisms throughout your life, emotional numbing can become a thing of the past that you never have to experience again. By taking the right steps and getting the help that you need, it can be so easy to live a fulfilling life and to be present and enjoy it. Emotional numbing is a very real and distressing condition that needs attention and treatment. Though it may not feel like you need help, if you are unable to enjoy your life and to feel even the best of emotions, it is time to seek clinical help.