After a trauma or an extremely stressful event, it’s not uncommon to feel emotionally numb, sometimes with a sense of isolation or disconnection. Other experiences and conditions and some medications can also cause emotional numbness. When a person is emotionally numb, they don’t feel joy or sadness. The normal swings of emotion are reduced to a sense of flatness and the world takes on a dull, muted aspect. This can be unbearable for some people. Fortunately, emotional numbness is usually temporary — and it is treatable.
What is emotional numbness?
Emotional numbness, sometimes referred to as affective blunting, is a state of being in which a person can neither feel nor express emotions. It’s not a clinically diagnosable condition, although it can be a symptom of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or another clinical condition. Some people who experience emotional numbness describe it as like being in a vacuum or living life as a robot. It can make the world seem unreal and lead a person to feel dissociated from their environment and the people around them.
Symptoms of emotional numbness include:
- Inability to access feelings and emotions — to feel either happy or sad
- Feeling disconnected, both from one’s own body and thoughts and from the outside world
- Feeling flat, both emotionally and physically, without energy or enthusiasm for anything
- Difficulty connecting with other people and responding to social and emotional cues
- Lack of interest in activities that were once enjoyable
- Withdrawal and a preference for being alone
What causes emotional numbness?
Emotional numbness can have many causes, including:
- Depression. While depression is commonly associated with feelings of sadness, it can also be experienced as a dulling of the emotions and feelings of emptiness. People with emotional numbness may not consider depression as a cause because they don’t feel unhappy.
- Anxiety. Extreme anxiety, a panic attack, or anxiety disorder can leave a person feeling emotionally numb.
- Overwhelming stress. Emotional numbness and detachment can be coping mechanisms in responding to extreme stress. Trauma, exhaustion, and burnout can all result in emotional numbness.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Emotional numbness can be a symptom of PTSD — one way the body and mind avoid the feelings and pain of past trauma.
- Abuse. Mental, physical, and emotional abuse are all associated with emotional numbness. Detachment and the suppression of feelings can be adopted as a protective shield.
- Grief. Intense grief can cause a person to disconnect from their emotions. That can happen when a loved one dies or in response to a terminal diagnosis.
- Medications. Antidepressant and antianxiety medications can leave a person feeling emotionally numb. When this happens, it’s important to work closely with the prescribing doctor. An adjusted dosage or a change in medication will usually restore emotional range.
- Substance misuse. Alcohol, cannabis, opioids, LSD, and other substances can blunt emotions, cause feelings of detachment, and reduce motivation to engage in formerly pleasurable activities.
Other mental health conditions associated with emotional numbness include schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder (BPD), and depersonalization-derealization disorder.
How to treat emotional numbness
Emotional numbness is not in itself a condition. It is a symptom. But it can be treated to bring immediate relief and reduce the risk of recurrence. The first step in overcoming emotional numbness is to identify and treat the underlying cause.
Your doctor, a therapist, or a psychiatrist can help with this diagnosis by asking questions to understand when feelings of emotional numbness began, what triggers their recurrence, and what else is going on in your life. Connections that might be invisible to you can become clearer in these therapeutic conversations. Paths to emotional healing with professional help include:
- Medication. Your doctor might recognize an association between your emotional numbness and a medication you’ve been prescribed. If that’s the case, a change in medication may be all that’s needed to restore you to yourself. Or your doctor might prescribe an antidepressant or antianxiety medication to address a diagnosis of depression or anxiety disorder that might be causing your emotional numbness.
- Talk therapy. Other causes of emotional numbness may take more work to understand and correct. In talk therapy or psychotherapy, you have exploratory and solution-focused conversations with a mental health therapist or psychiatrist. In these conversational sessions, you work on understanding the source of your anxiety, trauma, or emotional blocks, and learn productive coping tools. Different talk therapy approaches can be effective in resolving different causes of emotional numbness.
– Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) works by helping you recognize unhelpful thought and behavior patterns and replacing them with healthier and more productive thought and behavior patterns. With practice, you learn new emotional responses to situations or thoughts that are now shutting down your emotions.
– Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) guides you in using mindfulness to recognize, accept, and more fully experience your feelings and emotions. ACT can provide a path to greater engagement and a more meaningful life.
– Somatic experiencing therapy focuses on the mind-body connection to treat the symptoms and effects of trauma, grief, PTSD, and other mental health issues that can cause emotional numbness.
While you are receiving professional help, or if the causes of your emotional numbness are clear to you and within your power to address, you can make lifestyle changes to improve your mental and emotional health.
- Nurture your social support network. Reach out to people who love you for their support, guidance, and encouragement. It can be a relief to talk about what you’re experiencing. The social connection itself can also trigger positive feelings. You might also reach out to a spiritual advisor or join a support group or online forum.
- Be physically active. Moving your body is great therapy for stress and anxiety. It can also lift your mood and reduce symptoms of depression.
- Get plenty of sleep. Some of the conditions that cause emotional numbness, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, can interfere with nighttime sleep, but do your best to get seven or more hours of sleep every day. Adopt a regular bedtime routine. Avoid stimulants like caffeine or nicotine in the afternoon and evening.
- Manage stress. Identify the sources of stress in your life and do what you can to minimize them. Learn to recognize the signs of stress and to reduce their effects with stress-management techniques such as deep breathing and mindfulness.
- Re-engage with activities you enjoy. Push yourself to spend time doing things you used to enjoy, even if they no longer give you as much pleasure or satisfaction as they once did. Abandoning these activities can make you feel worse and your life feel emptier.
- Change your routine. Try something new. Get up an hour earlier and go for a walk as it’s getting light outside. Take a different route to work or the store. Find a new way to cook your favorite food. Make something. Learn how to make a home repair. Changing your routine, even in small ways, can help bring some color and interest back to your life.