If you’ve ever felt emotionally numb before, you know it’s a feeling that’s difficult to put into words. “Numb” literally means “unable to think, feel, or react normally” — it’s not anger or confusion or even sadness, but simply a lack of emotion.
This numbness can be a symptom of a mental health condition like depression, or it can be a response to trauma. In some cases, it may also be an intentional reaction to unpleasant feelings.
Emotional numbness can hold you back from functioning as a healthy and happy human being, especially if it occurs on a regular basis. Not sure what to do about it? Not sure if you’re even experiencing it in the first place?
No worries (pun not intended). We put together this guide to help you understand what emotional numbness feels like, its potential causes, and how to get help if you need it.
Since numbness is described as “nothingness”— a pretty vague term that can be difficult to decipher — people tend to explain the sensation differently.
One Reddit user recalls that they’ll sometimes be “[sitting] on my couch and just feel the nothingness wash over.” Another emotional numbness quote from a Reddit user says, “When I have really bad panic attacks, I experience a period of emptiness afterward because I’ve been run dry, and that emotional exhaustion can feel like numbness.”
The numbness could be prompted by a particular event, such as a death of someone close to you or a recent traumatic experience. Or, it could come out of nowhere and overwhelm you during an otherwise normal day.
You may even feel like you’re looking at yourself from the third person rather than experiencing life in your own body. Or that you’re disconnected from your own thoughts and emotions — feeling unable to react to the people around you. It can be incredibly isolating and lonely, especially if you’re unsure why it’s happening to you.
Numbing your emotions can also be a short-term salve for the sadness and stress in your life. This tactic, whether you realize you’re doing it or not, may provide temporary relief, but it can ultimately prevent you from feeling real love, fulfillment, and joy.
“We cannot selectively numb emotions,” writes author and researcher Brené Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection. “When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” And this holds people back from living full lives.
Thankfully, with the right tools, you can get some relief and feel more like yourself again. First, let’s look at the various causes of emotional numbness and disconnection.
- Depression. If you encounter emotional numbness on a regular basis, unprompted by any clear event or situation, it might be an underlying sign of depression.
When we think about the term “depressed,” we might picture someone who’s sad all the time. But this isn’t the whole story for many people. The Mayo Clinic and other studies list melancholic features and atypical features as signals of major depressive disorder, which means someone doesn’t react as they normally would to emotionally charged situations.
Rather than feeling joy when you get good news, you may feel nothing at all. Or, rather than feeling sad when you lose someone or something, you just feel empty.
- Depersonalization disorder. If you feel not only numb, but also physically disconnected from your body, you could have something called depersonalization/derealization disorder.
This condition occurs in less than 2 percent of the general population, and it’s thought to be caused by a combination of biological factors (neurological systems in your brain) and outside experiences of trauma or violence.
This can sometimes be a sign of other psychiatric conditions, so it’s helpful to see a mental health professional who might be able to help you understand your symptoms better. Typically, depersonalization can be treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
- PTSD. A past traumatic experience can cause your brain to shut down when it encounters emotions that bring back that memory. People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may report feeling numb when they encounter some kind of trigger, whether that’s a place, person, or object associated with the traumatic event.
This can last for months or years after the event itself, and it can be a serious mental roadblock that prevents you from connecting with people or living an anxiety-free life. PTSD often requires the assistance of a therapist to be able to fully let go and heal.
- Emotional avoidance. In some cases, emotional numbness may indicate that you aren’t prepared to deal with negative emotions, so you push them away as a coping mechanism to avoid having to work through them.
This is also called emotional unavailability, and it can limit your ability to form close and meaningful relationships with others. There are many reasons someone might avoid facing their emotions, and it could also be connected to mental health disorders like depression and PTSD.
Regardless, working with a therapist can also help you in this case, by making you feel more equipped to process emotions head-on.
How you treat emotional numbness will likely depend on the severity of your symptoms and how much they’re affecting your day-to-day life.
To better understand your specific situation, consider booking an appointment with a psychiatrist trained to diagnose depressive conditions. Your doctor may suggest one or more of the following options.
- Medication. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can help lift the fog in your brain and get you feeling back to normal. The most common variety are SSRIs, which act on your body’s serotonin levels to increase the abundance of feel-good hormones — and just help you to experience life regularly again.
- Psychotherapy. Working with a licensed therapist can be extremely beneficial to your long-term mental health. You’ll learn about any underlying emotional hang-ups and triggers, and develop tools to help you handle difficult life situations while maintaining a healthy mental state.
- Exercise. When you feel empty inside, it’s not easy to force yourself to get up and get moving at the gym or go for a run. But exercise can help get you out of a slump and literally make your brain feel better (endorphins, baby!). Try to establish a regular workout routine to keep you physically and mentally alert.
- Sleep. Consistent, restful sleep is crucial to being able to function at your best. Set a schedule for yourself to ensure you get 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep as often as you possibly can.
- Diet. Another great way to nourish your body is by eating a diet rich in plants and whole foods. These nutrients can help regulate your hormones and stabilize your mood throughout the day.
The tips above can help you in the long term, but it’s also important to have day-to-day coping mechanisms when you start to feel yourself shutting down.
If you notice the numbness creeping up at any point, try to counteract it by getting up and moving, or by spending time with others doing things you love.
The people in your life can help you feel less alone in your tough moments. Your therapist may also suggest some daily exercises to help with prevention.