An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

What It Means When You’re Feeling Emotionally Numb

Reading Time: 7 minutes

You might have seen the phrase “feeling emotionally numb” on a list of common symptoms of various mental health disorders. But what does that really mean? Feeling numb inside is different for every individual. In general, people describe it as feeling empty or dead inside, and not caring about anything—even the things you used to care about a lot. 

We all have days when we feel more or less engaged with life and excited about the future. But if you find yourself feeling emotionally numb day after day, for weeks on end, and it begins to affect your daily life and relationships, it might be a sign of an underlying mental health condition.

What Is Emotional Blunting?

I feel nothing. What’s wrong with me?” That’s often how people describe what it feels like at certain stages of depression or languishing. The experience of feeling emotionally numb can also include:

  • A limited or muted emotional response to events
  • Reduced ability to respond to emotions in others
  • Feeling disconnected from people, leading to indifference, loneliness and isolation
  • Disconnection from your body, as if you’re on autopilot
  • Forgetfulness and difficulty focusing
  • Fatigue
  • Hopelessness
  • Sense of shame about not feeling emotions
  • Engaging in self-harm or risky behavior in an effort to feel something
  • Overuse of alcohol or drugs in an effort to further avoid feelings

What Is the Cause of Feeling Numb?

What does it mean when you feel numb? Feeling emotionally numb commonly arises as an unconscious protective response to feeling difficult emotions, whether due to anxiety, stress or trauma. Experts regard it as a form of dissociation, a process that allows us to unconsciously protect ourselves from emotional pain. 

But not letting in our emotions keeps us from processing and healing the cause of those feelings. Moreover, pushing hard feelings away can make it hard to feel anything at all—whether that’s love, happiness, surprise, or even interest. Over time, detachment from our emotions can affect our sense of identity, relationships with other people, and even our physical well-being.

We cannot selectively numb emotion. If we numb the dark, we numb the light. If we take the edge off pain and discomfort, we are, by default, taking the edge off joy, love, belonging, and the other emotions that give meaning to our lives.

Brené Brown
research professor at the University of Houston and author of “The Gifts of Imperfection: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life”

Emotions, Evolution, and the Stress Response

Experts believe that emotions evolved to help us adapt to our environment. From an evolutionary perspective, positive emotions encourage us to seek out experiences that are beneficial for survival, like connection with others and sexual intimacy. Negative emotions motivate us to avoid or escape situations that pose a threat. 

Our emotions are meant to fluctuate as part of our stress response system. We should feel a surge when we need to take action and be able to downshift when the threat has passed. Problems arise when we lose the emotional flexibility to respond to the circumstances of the moment. Both heightened reactivity and blunted emotions are associated with a number of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder

Emotional numbness can also be a sign of schizophrenia, depersonalization/derealization disorder, or dissociative identity disorder. Genetic predisposition and personal life history may cause disorders like these to develop as part of an individual’s response to stress and trauma.

How Stress and Trauma Can Lead to Feeling Emotionally Numb

The body’s stress response system evolved to protect us from life-threatening experiences. When it’s functioning well, it produces a rush of hormones and physiological responses that help us get through a challenging situation and then subside once the situation is resolved. But chronic or overwhelming stress can swamp the system and trigger a state of collapse (including emotional numbness). This state can be produced by specific events, such as an academic deadline, the end of a relationship, or serious illness. Or it can result from ongoing stressors like prejudice, community violence, or financial insecurity.

An acute trauma, such as a car accident, an assault, or a natural disaster, can also trigger an intense stress response. This becomes problematic when the protective reflex persists long after the event has passed. That’s why feeling numb can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Childhood trauma has also been linked to lingering forms of dissociation later in life, including emotional numbness. Because children don’t have any other way to protect themselves, the body and mind unconsciously turn off emotions to avoid pain and fear. Furthermore, if a child has learned through experience that their expression of emotion will trigger anger in a caregiver, they may develop a fear of feelings in general. This is sometimes termed “affect phobia.” Emotional neglect, when a child’s emotional needs are ignored, invalidated, or unappreciated, can be just as harmful.

Other Causes of Emotional Numbness

  • Grief: The loss of a loved one can cause intense sadness—or paradoxically, a feeling of numbness. Once again, feeling emotionally numb can be understood as an instinctive defense mechanism against overwhelming emotion or the loss of someone important for your emotional survival. 
  • Medication side effects: Some antidepressant medications can cause emotional numbness, particularly SSRIs and SNRIs. Emotional blunting is reported by nearly half of depressed patients on antidepressants and is a common reason why people choose to stop taking them.
  • Substance abuse: Most experts now agree that unresolved trauma or grief underlies most cases of substance abuse. People turn to substances to drown out their feelings or as a way to feel anything at all. The emotional numbness associated with traumatic life experiences can be worsened by damage to brain cells caused by heavy or prolonged use of drugs and alcohol. 

How to Bring Your Emotions Back to Life

Fortunately, the human mind and body are resilient, particularly in young adults. And our natural tendency is toward feeling all of our emotions. There are ways to gradually open yourself up to letting in both difficult and joyful feelings. The support of a mental health professional is key. Working with a clinician in therapy or a treatment program can help young adults understand why they needed to protect themselves with emotional numbness, and begin healing those underlying issues.

Here are some ways to start moving back toward feeling your emotions, while protecting your overall health and well-being.

Explore the world of emotions in baby steps.

If your system has been working hard to protect you from the intensity of your emotions, you will want to start exploring them again gently. Music, books, and movies can be a good way to feel emotions vicariously as you work up to facing your own. Explore the different words for emotions (this chart from Brené Brown may help) and practice applying them to those art-induced emotions. Pay attention to the sensations those vicarious emotions produce in your body—that will make them easier to recognize as they occur in your own life.

Prioritize sleep, nutrition and exercise.

It’s easier to face challenges when your system has what it needs to function properly. Unmet physical needs deplete your resilience and make ordinary challenges feel more overwhelming. Paying attention to the three pillars of mental health will make your system less likely to stay stuck in an emotion-numbing stress response cycle.

Seek out healthy face-to-face connection.

Spend time with people (and pets!) who allow you to be authentic and vulnerable. Learn to recognize what Brené Brown calls “empathy misses”—judgment and blame, for example, but also well-intended minimization or problem-solving that gets in the way of connecting with your experience of emotion. That awareness will help you avoid internalizing other people’s unconscious messages that your feelings are invalid, unimportant, or too scary to face.

Up your comfort with discomfort, gently.

The techniques of yoga and mindfulness soothe the nervous system, increasing physical and mental flexibility. You may notice improved sleep, better digestion, and many other benefits that support emotional resilience. Just as importantly, both disciplines cultivate a “witness consciousness” that allows a healthy awareness of emotion without overwhelm. Though simple, these practices are not always easy. Be sure to find a teacher who encourages self-compassion.

Support for the Root Causes of Feeling Emotionally Numb 

Getting to the underlying causes of emotional numbness is hard to do alone. By the time you get to the point of feeling emotionally numb, your system has been trying hard to keep you from facing your feelings for a while. A mental health professional trained in trauma-informed care can help you to safely uncover what’s catalyzing your emotional numbness, and address the original trauma or stress that triggered it.

At Newport Institute, we treat young adults using tailored treatment plans designed to support their unique needs and past history. Young people in our care heal the underlying causes of emotional numbing while gaining self-knowledge, self-care practices, and life skills. Reach out today to find out more about the path back to feeling life fully.

Key Takeaways

  • Emotional numbness is typically an unconscious protective response to feeling difficult emotions, whether due to anxiety, stress or trauma.
  • Chronic and acute trauma can trigger a stress response that swamps the system and triggers a state of collapse, including emotional numbness.
  • Blocking hard feelings can make it hard to feel anything at all, including the hard feelings, and it can make healing difficult if not impossible.
  • Humans are resilient and our natural tendency is to move toward feeling all our emotions fully. There are ways we can support this process of reawakening our feelings.
  • Mental health treatment can help young adults understand why they feel emotionally numb and address the root causes that catalyzed this self-protective mechanism.

Frequently Asked Questions About Emotional Numbness

What is the feeling when you don’t feel anything?

In general, people describe emotional numbness as feeling empty or dead inside, not caring about anything, and feeling disconnected from oneself and from the people around you.

What is the cause of feeling numb?

Feeling emotionally numb commonly arises as an unconscious protective response to feeling difficult emotions, whether due to anxiety, stress or trauma. Experts regard it as a form of dissociation, a process that allows us to unconsciously protect ourselves from emotional pain. 

What does it mean when a person is numb?

Feeling emotionally numb is associated with a number of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Emotional numbness can also be a sign of schizophrenia, depersonalization/derealization disorder, or dissociative identity disorder.

How do you deal with numbness?

Therapy or another form of mental health treatment can help young adults understand why they needed to protect themselves with emotional numbness, and begin healing the underlying stress, trauma, or other mental heath disorder.

Sources

Ann Gen Psychiatry. 2022 Apr 4; 21(1):10.

Redox Biol. 2020 Oct; 37: 101588.

Front Psychol. 2018; 9: 2054.

Curr Opin Psychol. 2017 Oct;17: 22–26.

J Affect Disord. 2017 Oct 15;221: 31–35.

Cogn Neuropsychiatry. 2016 Sep;21(5): 377–401.

Mental Health / September 5, 2022

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