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What Is Emotional Numbness?

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“I knew I should have felt happy or sad or surprised or angry but I didn’t. I simply felt empty, numb, completely detached… I didn’t even feel like me.” We often talk about the pain associated with depression, the feelings of sadness, hopelessness or guilt. We speak of the overwhelming emotions, we speak of their intensity and their persistency, which begs the question… is it better to feel nothing at all?

What Is Emotional Numbness?

Emotional numbness refers to a person’s subjective experience of an inability to feel emotions, often accompanied by a lack of care and concern for oneself and others. Other symptoms of emotional numbness may include:

  • Feeling of heaviness
  • Feelings of emptiness or hollowness
  • Lack of motivation, interest or pleasure in any of life’s activities
  • Being unresponsive to the environment
  • Becoming socially withdrawn
  • Feeling alienated and apart around others
  • Diminished mental alertness
  • An inability to react to the environment
  • Being unable to express oneself through means such as crying or talking
  • Turning to self harm to stimulate a sense of feeling
  • Feeling trapped
  • Feeling detached from ones mind or body
  • Having an out of body experience
  • Engaging in risky behaviors to feel something

Why do we experience emotional numbness?

Emotional numbness can be thought of as a depletion of emotional resources following a period of hyper arousal. In other words, when we are exposed to high levels of stress or emotional turmoil for an extended period of time it as if our body shuts down its emotional system in order to protect us from this painful experience. Feelings of emotional numbness have also been described as being in a state of depersonalization – this refers to a state in which ones sense of self and subjective experience are altered such that a person feels alienated from themselves and their surroundings. When healthy people are exposed to dangerous or potentially life-threatening situations, many of them report experiencing some features of depersonalization, suggesting that this is a normal experience in response to extreme emotional pressure such as that experienced in people with depression. It has therefore been theorized that people who experience emotional numbness or depersonalization persistently may have a lower threshold due to the duration and intensity of this negative emotional state.

It is also unsurprising that many people with PTSD may also experience emotional numbness in response to being in a state of hyper arousal over a period of time. In a sample of Vietnam combat veterans it was found that symptoms of hyper arousal were the biggest predictors of emotional numbness, further supporting this theory.

What happens in the brain of someone who is emotionally numb?

Studies have shown that when compared to healthy controls, individuals experiencing depersonalization showed reduced neural activity in areas of the brain associated with emotional processing, particularly the left anterior insula, when they were exposed to aversive images. Furthermore, this region was significantly more active in patients who reported improvement in their experiences of depersonalization as opposed to those who had not improved.

Are there treatment options for emotional numbness?

As with many other mental illnesses, a combination of both medication and talk therapy appear to be most effective. Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) appear to be effective as they work by increasing levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of wellbeing and happiness) in the brain. Talk therapies such as CBT or trauma therapy may also be helpful in addressing the underlying causes of emotional numbness and developing coping strategies to work through these. Everyday activities that allow us to get in touch with our emotional and bodily sensations such as getting a massage, exercising, mindfulness practices, journal writing, swimming or catharsis (e.g. screaming into a pillow, using sad or negative thoughts to stimulate crying/sadness etc.) may also be useful strategies to put into practice on a regular basis.

Feeling emotionally numb can be an alienating and debilitating experience; while we may be alleviating the experience of emotional pain we can also become numb to positive experiences too. It is important however to keep in mind that with the right supports and coping strategies in place emotional numbness can be overcome.

Lead photo courtesy of Pexels

Originally published: July 5, 2019
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