Emotional numbness refers to a loss of connection and expression of emotions by becoming “flat,” detached, or mentally blank. This is a coping mechanism some use when they feel overwhelmed by their feelings which may stem from conditions such as PTSD, depression, or dementia. Emotional numbness can be treated with psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, and medication.
What Is Emotional Numbness?
When someone is emotionally numb, they have a significant decrease in their emotional experiences–not because they do not have feelings, but because they choose to suppress these feelings altogether. Such numbness tends to be temporary and results from being in a particularly stressful situation. Those experiencing emotional numbness may feel as though they have been cut off from their emotions, or that they must avoid or disconnect from them in order to protect themselves.
At its core, emotional numbness is a maladaptive coping mechanism that often emerges in a state of constant hypervigilance and assessment of one’s safety.1 While remaining numb may temporarily alleviate emotional pain, stress, or trauma, it ultimately exacerbates unwanted symptoms by interfering with emotional processing.1
Symptoms of Emotional Numbness
A person who is emotionally numb tends to feel mentally blank, detached from others, or disconnected from their own identity, interests, and feelings. Some may mask this by pretending to have feelings different from their own, oftentimes by acting happy or joyful.
Common symptoms of emotional numbness include:
- Feeling emotionally or physically “flat”
- Distancing self from others
- Having a distorted sense of time
- Lack of physical reactions to emotional experiences (e.g., heart racing, chest heaviness, etc)
- Feeling detached or estranged from others
- Loss of motivation
- Loss of self-awareness
- Feeling disconnected from one’s identity
- Losing interest in hobbies
- Masking by pretending to have feelings
What Causes Emotional Numbness?
Emotional numbness may be caused and affected by several factors and disorders, including depression, stress, trauma, abuse, dementia, and certain medications. While there is a commonly held belief that those with schizophrenia tend to exhibit emotional numbness, studies show that these individuals actually report comparable levels of emotion as neurotypical populations.2,3Instead, those with schizophrenia tend to experience blunted affect, a prominent symptom of schizophrenia that involves a lack of emotional expression that does not necessarily reflect internal conflict.
Emotional numbness may be caused by:
- Depression: Those diagnosed with depression tend to experience emotional numbness due to a loss of pleasure or interest in formerly enjoyed activities, low moods, or feelings of detachment from themselves and the world.
- Stress: Those experiencing general stress or a stressful life event (such as bereavement) often have higher cortisol levels, which can be associated with emotional numbness.4
- Trauma: Those who have experienced trauma (such as childhood trauma or sexual trauma) may exhibit emotional numbness in order to disconnect from the traumatic event or triggers. This tends to be a symptom most predictive of persistent and long-lasting PTSD.1
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD): One of the defining symptoms of BPD is chronic feelings of emptiness, which involves feeling disconnected (both from the self and others). This can lead to episodes of emotional numbness.5
- Anxiety: Anxious behaviors such as rumination and worry activate the body’s stress response. Such changes involve the limbic system, which can manifest with flattened emotions in response to overstimulation of chronic stress.6
- Medications: Certain antidepressant medications such as SSRIs may lead to feelings of detachment from emotions, apathy, and indifference, particularly for those prescribed higher doses.7
- Abuse: Those who have experienced abuse (such as physical or emotional abuse) may find that emotional numbness temporarily protects them from negative memories. For those still in an abusive environment, emotional numbing may be a survival strategy.
- Depersonalization-derealization disorder (DPDR): DPDR is a disruption of self-awareness characterized by emotional numbness, a sense of detachment from oneself, difficulty with subjective recall, and a feeling of alienation from one’s surroundings.8
- Dementia: Emotional blunting is a characteristic feature of behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD), and involves feelings of apathy and a loss of empathy.9
- Hormone imbalances: Because the endocrine and neurologic systems are closely interrelated, imbalances in one can influence the other. Endocrine dysfunctions (such as hormonal imbalances) can lead to emotional changes and mental disorders, such as depression, whose symptoms include emotional numbness.10
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Emotional Numbness Treatment
Treatment starts with wanting to get help and feeling ready to let go of emotional numbness. The treatment for emotional numbness is largely dependent on its underlying cause. A thorough assessment will likely be needed to understand its etiology and triggers. Psychotherapy options are often effective as they can help an individual adopt more effective coping mechanisms for dealing with emotions. For some, medications can help in treating related conditions.
Therapy can be particularly effective in treating emotional numbness and help you become more comfortable with experiencing unwanted emotions. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) are two forms of behavioral therapies that emphasize the connection between one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They strive to help people feel their emotions constructively and healthfully.
There are different ways that medication can affect emotional numbness. For example, emotional numbness due to severe depression may be treated using antidepressants to improve mood, energy, and motivation. Conversely, sometimes the most effective treatment for emotional numbness is to consider decreasing dosages or changing medication altogether. In fact, while taking SSRIs may decrease emotional numbness for some, in other cases higher doses of the same medication will increase these symptoms.
How to Cope With Emotional Numbness
There are several strategies you can try to cope with and address emotional numbness. These may include making healthy lifestyle changes such as maintaining a sleep schedule, exercise habits, and nutritious diet, among others.
Here are some helpful strategies to address emotional numbness:
- Journaling: Oftentimes, emotional numbness stems from one’s suppression of thoughts and feelings. Getting your thoughts out on paper by journaling can help you combat numbness by allowing you to work through your emotions in a healthy way.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness involves using your senses to connect to and ground yourself in the present moment. Doing this can help reconnect you with your surroundings and increase insight into your emotional state.
- Meditation: Meditation is a form of mindfulness that involves using mind-body techniques to train the brain to develop and sustain awareness and concentration.
- Movement: Any form of movement–whether that be intense exercise or simply stretching–can be an effective way to produce physical sensations that remind you of your ability to feel.
- Self-soothing: Self-soothing involves engaging in pleasant, comforting, and calming activities to relieve stress and connect with oneself in a healthy and nurturing way. This can be practiced by smelling a scented candle, petting an animal, or giving oneself a gentle hug.
- Consider lifestyle choices: Getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating healthfully (whatever that means to you) are all methods of addressing emotional numbness, as they reduce one’s vulnerability to stress.
Emotional numbness can be scary to confront, as it’s likely a strategy that’s helped you feel safe for some time. Getting back in touch with your feelings is not only possible, but will help you develop healthier ways of processing your emotions and feel better–both in the short and long-term. If you’re experiencing emotional numbness, consider using an online directory to find a therapist who can assist you in your journey.