Experiencing negative emotions is really no fun, but sometimes feeling absolutely nothing at all can feel just as bad. Plus, if you’ve never felt true emotional numbness before, it can be really scary to experience it for the first time.
Feeling numb can often be an indicator that something deeper is going on and could be a symptom of a mental health condition. However, once you’ve determined the cause of the emotional numbness, there are solutions to help you cope with it.
How and Why we Become ‘Numb’
Regardless of the underlying cause for the numbness, the sensation—or rather, lack thereof— is a psychological defense mechanism, especially when we’re feeling negatively overwhelmed. “It’s easier to feel numb and shut down than to experience many emotions at once,” says Talkspace provider Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT. “We live in a culture of productivity, being busy, and the constant input of noise without signal. Numbness is a way to cope with this.”
Causes of numbness
The causes of numbness are varied and it’s important to see a licensed mental health professional for an official diagnosis, but the causes of numbness can include:
- Substance Abuse — Various substances ranging from alcohol to painkillers to street drugs can cause emotional numbness. In fact, that’s often why people use them, they want to feel numb and dull the pain they’re experiencing. Using drugs or alcohol to cope with emotions, however, can lead to addiction and other negative outcomes.
- Grief: While many people associate grief with sorrow and crying, it does not manifest in this way for everybody. Everyone experiences grief and processes loss differently and sometimes the grieving process may leave one feeling numb. This could be because you’re in denial or disbelief about your loss, or because you don’t want to process the difficult emotions that come accompany death.
- Depression: It’s a misconception that people with depression are sad all the time. Instead, a depressed person’s symptoms might include an overwhelming sense of nothingness and numbness . In these situations, it’s common to lose interest in doing things that one once enjoyed.
- Anhedonia: Simply put, anhedonia is “the inability to feel pleasure.”. Anhedonia is usually related to depression, but not always. Someone experiencing this symptom might not feel pleasure or joy from things that used to bring them joy.
- PTSD: Post traumatic stress disorder is a common cause for emotional numbness. The disorder can certainly cause emotional pain and extremely unpleasant flashbacks, but sometimes, PTSD sufferers will also feel numb. Trauma has a way of making emotions shut down.
- Medications: Some people who take psych medications for a mental health condition might notice that, though their symptoms are now gone, they have instead been replaced with a feeling of numbness. This is also known as “emotional blunting.”
- Avoiding emotions: You could be experiencing numbness if you are simply avoiding your emotions — whether that be acknowledging them or feeling them. This could be due to any of the above causes, or it could be how your brain copes during tumultuous times.
What to do if You Feel Numb
How and when you come out of your state of numbness will depend on what caused you to feel numb in the first place. For example, if you’ve felt numb due to substance abuse, you might only be able to feel your typical emotional range again if you get sober. If you’re numb due to grief, sometimes you just have to wait it out. Everyone’s timeline for grief is different, though if you continue to feel depressed or numb for more than a year, it’s important to seek help from a licensed therapist or grief counselor.
. If a mental health condition or medication is the cause of your numbness, it’s important to voice this to your therapist and/or psychiatrist so you can work through the situation together and come up with a solution. Therapists can help you identify and unpack your emotions in a healthy way in a safe setting.
In order to stop feeling numb, you’re likely going to have to learn how to feel emotions and sit with them. “Emotions can be scary and there is a common fear of an emotion taking over,” says Hinkle. “Emotions can’t hurt us. It may feel uncomfortable to experience them; however, you can learn to ride the wave through them and know they won’t last.”
To sit with your emotions, you have to be introspective and dig deep, even though that can feel really unpleasant at first. Hinkle advises, “To feel less numb, start with gently exploring your internal state of emotions — perhaps identify one that stands out.”
Hinkle suggests asking yourself the following four questions to help in identifying and experiencing emotions:
- What is the emotion?
- Where is this feeling coming from?
- What can I do to validate that emotion, to make it okay to allow myself to feel some of it, a little at a time?
- What would it be like to be less numb? What am I afraid would happen?
Don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional if the numbness occurs frequently, or if you’re having episodes of numbness that last for days or weeks at a time. A licensed professional therapist can help you determine what the underlying cause of your numbness is and get you back to feeling a range of emotions again.