Emotional Numbness: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

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Everyone experiences emotional numbness at some point.

Emotional numbness is a state where the brain just isn’t processing and allowing a person to feel what they should be feeling.

This is not a matter of correct and incorrect feelings. A situation or experience will evoke different emotions from different people. Not everyone is wired the same, nor should we really expect anyone to respond in a typical way to a situation.

An emotionally numb person may feel either a total flatness or muted emotions instead of the vibrant emotions that they would otherwise experience.

What Is Emotional Numbness?

Emotion is incredibly important to the human experience.

Many of us are driven by our emotions – a desire for something better, sadness, feeling of achievement, frustration, love, anger, warmth.

These emotions are pigments on the pallet that paints our experiences with the vibrancy of life.

Not only does emotional numbness affect a person’s feelings, it also affects their emotional reactions and responses.

It can interfere with work, relationships, and the ability to live life. Hobbies, interests, and socialization often suffer because there are no emotions pushing the person to want to do those things; no pleasure or fun to be gained by engaging.

Why bother doing the thing if you don’t have to? Responsibilities must be done or you can fall behind in life. But the extra activities, hobbies, dating, and passions are all driven by emotions and desire.

Many people mistakenly believe emotional numbness is a positive coping mechanism.

It’s not.

Yes, it’s valuable to have the ability to shut off your emotions and deal with something important that needs to be taken care of where emotion is a liability.

But far too many people forget to go back and process the emotions they should have experienced during that situation.

Those residual emotions stick with us and will eventually come back if they are not handled in a healthy way.

The shutting off of one’s emotions to avoid any negative feelings is avoidance, and avoidance is not a healthy coping mechanism.

A person experiencing emotional numbness, particularly over a long period of time, should discuss it with their doctor as it often points to a medical or mental health problem.

Symptoms Of Emotional Numbness

– A loss of interest in important activities.

– A feeling of isolation and detachment from people.

– A feeling of flatness emotionally and physically; a loss of energy.

– Difficulty in experiencing positive and negative emotions of any kind.

– An impeded ability to conduct one’s life.

– An inability to think deeply or with complexity.

– Difficulty in converting emotions into words and communicating them to other people.

– Isolating oneself, not leaving the house, and avoiding socialization.

What Causes Emotional Numbness?

Emotional numbness is often the result of repeated exposure to physical or emotional pain.

A person experiencing these things may focus on shutting off their emotions so that they aren’t as sharp or difficult to deal with in the moment.

The ability to do this can be good for getting through the short-term, but can cause much greater problems in the long-term. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

The problem is that the protective wall doesn’t pick and choose between positive and negative emotions. It’s just a wall that will effectively block both unless you take the time to create a door by letting yourself feel your emotions.

Medications of all kinds can bring a variety of side effects, including emotional numbness. It’s not an unusual side effect of psychiatric medications.

Mental health problems are also a possibility. That includes things like:

– Depression

– Mental and physical abuse

– Substance abuse

– Stress

– Trauma-related experiences or PTSD

– Grief

– High anxiety or anxiety disorders

Trauma-related experiences often encourage emotional numbing as a coping mechanism for the person experiencing them, particularly in long-term traumatic situations like an abusive childhood or relationship.

The survivor doesn’t typically have any exterior control over what is happening to them, so they distance themselves as a way to cope with what they are being subjected to.

That can manifest long after the traumatic experience by the person seeking to avoid situations that remind them of their experience, conversations, or feelings about anything related to the experience.

People with anxiety may use emotional numbness as a coping mechanism to try to bring down their high stress level to a more tolerable level. Avoidance of positive and negative emotions is often associated with anxiety and anxiety disorders.

Treating Emotional Numbness

The treatment for emotional numbness depends on the cause. This is a process that is best done with a mental health professional.

Friends, family, and a support network do not have the necessary skills to help identify the issue and work through the emotions surrounding it.

The professional will help you identify what the cause of the emotional numbness is and then help you address the reason.

This is typically done in a gradual way, unpacking the sealed boxes that the emotions about the situation are stored in.

Plunging straight into it can do greater harm because of how overwhelming it can be to start opening up and looking in those boxes.

You will typically learn new coping mechanisms to replace emotional numbness with and focus on learning to feel your positive and negative feelings again.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of behavior therapy that is often used to help people with mental health problems that include emotional numbness.

ACT uses a mindfulness-based approach to recognize and interpret emotional experiences as they are happening so the patient can better intercept negative coping skills and replace them with positive coping skills.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tends to focus more on expressing and understanding one’s emotions so that you can make the choice of replacing negative behaviors with more positive ones.

CBT also teaches a person how to properly evaluate a situation to determine what kind of emotional energy should be given to it.

That evaluation can dramatically change the way a person reacts to their situation, which can give them greater peace and happiness.

The professional may also recommend lifestyle changes for their patient if they are living a high-stress life. The emotional numbness may be caused by the person just being overwhelmed by what is going on in their day-to-day life.

Lifestyle Changes That Can Help

There are several lifestyle changes that can generally help improve one’s mental well-being.

1. Get regular exercise.

Exercise can be a great way to combat emotional numbness. Moving and exercising causes your brain to produce endorphins which can provide a boost in mood and energy.

Regular exercise, as little as 20 minutes a day, can dramatically improve a person’s mental and emotional health.

2. Improve your sleep hygiene.

A regular, appropriate amount of sleep does wonders for mental health. Many people can do with a tune up to their sleep hygiene, that is, the circumstances surrounding how a person sleeps.

Doing things like having a dark room, avoiding screens before bed, having a comfortable bed, and getting enough hours of sleep are all important.

3. Improve your diet.

The food that we put in the machine that is the body is fuel that powers our existence. A machine with bad fuel in it doesn’t run well. And that is absolutely true for the human body.

Replacing unhealthy foods with healthy ones and consuming only what we need is a better path to improved health.

4. Reducing life’s stresses.

Stress is a major factor in emotional numbness. Many people who experience emotional numbness may have other problems that have not yet been dealt with.

Piling more stress on top of whatever problems already existed is more than enough to overwhelm anyone.

The brain simply can’t deal with that kind of load, so it shuts things down to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Reducing stress is another important part of improving one’s mental and emotional health.

5. Learn to identify, express, and process emotions.

A person who has been emotionally numb for a long time is likely to need professional help with this, because it’s so easy to forget how to do these things when you haven’t done them in a long time.

Or maybe you’ve never done them. Children who grow up in abusive homes rarely have the freedom they need to develop, express, and process their own emotions.

Luckily, emotional intelligence is a skill that can be learned.

6. Develop and lean on a support network.

It’s helpful to have friends and confidants to lean on when you’re going through a hard, emotional time.

If you don’t have these people in your personal life, it may be worthwhile to seek out a support group or a therapist.

Cultivating these kinds of friendships is kind of difficult because it requires trust, which is something that needs to be built over time. It’s not a quick fix if you don’t have meaningful support already.

If you do, discussing a situation with your people can help you get a better idea of how to feel about and handle a situation.

The Path To Wellness And Recovery

The process of working toward wellness and healing emotional numbness can be difficult, but it is very possible.

It is a long-term commitment to working to change oneself and the way we interact with life.

It’s an important journey so that we may experience life the way it is meant to be experienced, and so that we may feel our sadness and enjoy our happiness when it is time.

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About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.