Updated on 9/20/2022
Experiencing negative emotions is never fun, but sometimes feeling absolutely nothing at all can be just as bad, if not worse. If you’ve never felt true emotional numbness before, it can be really scary the first time you go through it.
Feeling numb can be an indicator that something deeper is going on. It could actually be a symptom of a mental health condition. It’s not healthy to feel emotionally numb or despondent. What you’re feeling might be a common symptom of anxiety disorder, depression, grief, stress, abuse, or something else.
Feeling numb isn’t a healthy coping mechanism, but the good news is that once you’ve determined the cause of your emotional numbing, solutions can help you manage your feelings and cope.
Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms and causes of emotional numbness and what you can do if you or someone you know has been feeling numb lately.
Symptoms of Emotional Numbness
There are several symptoms of emotional numbness that everyone should be aware of. If you’ve been experiencing any of the following, you might be trying to cope with something difficult by numbing yourself to your true and honest feelings. The simple fact of the matter is that avoiding your negative feelings won’t improve things.
Symptoms of emotional numbness might include:
- Not being able to access your feelings
- Feeling unable to act and participate in your life and relationships
- Feeling despondent, detached, or distant from others around you
- Finding it difficult to experience and express positive feelings like joy
- Feeling emotionally and/or physically “flat”
- Wanting to isolate yourself
- Loss of interest in people, things, and activities you once enjoyed
What Causes Emotional Numbness?
Regardless of the underlying cause of your emotional numbness, the altered sensation — or rather, lack thereof — is a psychological defense mechanism, especially if you’re feeling negatively overwhelmed.
“It’s easier to feel numb and shut down than to experience many emotions at once. 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.”
Common causes of numbness
The causes of numbness can be varied, and it might be essential to see a licensed mental health professional for an official diagnosis. Feeling numb can be the result of:
- Substance abuse: Various substances ranging from alcohol to painkillers to street drugs, can cause emotional numbing. In fact, that’s often why people use them; they want to feel numb and dull the pain they’re experiencing. However, using drugs or alcohol to cope with emotions can lead to addiction and other negative outcomes.
- Grief: While many people associate grief with sadness 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 negative emotions accompanying death.
- Depression: It’s a misconception that people with depression are always sad. Instead, a depressed person’s symptoms might include an overwhelming sense of nothingness and numbness. In these situations, losing interest in doing things one once enjoyed is common.
- 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 (PTSD) is a common cause of emotional numbness. The condition can certainly cause emotional pain and extremely unpleasant flashbacks, but sometimes people living with PTSD will also feel numb. Trauma has a way of making emotions shut down.
- Medications: Some people who take prescription medications for a mental health condition might notice that, though some symptoms will improve or resolve, they’ve instead been replaced with a feeling of numbness. This is also known as “emotional blunting.”
- Avoiding emotions: You could be experiencing numbness if you’re simply avoiding or repressing emotions — whether you resist acknowledging them or feeling them. This could be due to any of the above causes, or it could be a coping mechanism during tumultuous, distressing times.
“Emotional numbness occurs in an effort to shut out pain, emotional and/or physical. It’s a type of unhealthy coping skill that’s only ever a temporary solution to a complicated situation.”
What to Do if You Feel Numb
How and when you come out of your state of emotional numbness will depend on what caused you to feel numb in the first place. When you understand why you’re feeling numb, you can work to face and deal with whatever in your life is causing this unhealthy emotional reaction.
Avoid substance abuse
If you’ve been feeling numb from substance abuse, you might only be able to feel your typical emotional range again if you get sober.
Seek a mental health diagnosis from a therapist
If a mental health condition 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.
“It’s important to seek out professional help when one recognizes emotional numbness is occurring. Talking to someone and learning healthier coping skills will facilitate increased emotional openness and the ability to discuss and expose the situation causing the numbness.”
Talk to your doctor about your medication
If you’ve been taking medication for another condition causing you to feel numb, you should talk to your psychiatrist or doctor as soon as possible. Your mental health care team will want to know about your reaction to any medication you take. You can be prescribed a different medication, or your doctor can adjust the dosage.
Address your emotions
Sometimes dealing with your emotions can be painful. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to avoid them entirely, though. If you’re finding it difficult to walk through pain, grief, or anything else you’re experiencing, therapy might be able to help you manage and cope with your emotions.
In order to stop feeling numb, you’ll likely 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. 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 must be introspective and dig deep, even though that can initially feel really unpleasant. Hinkle advises, “To feel less numb, start with gently exploring your internal state of emotions — perhaps identify one that stands out.”
Consider 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?
Work through any grief
If you’re numb due to grief, sometimes you just have to wait it out. Everyone’s timeline for grief is different, but 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.
Find Answers With a Therapist
Don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional if you’re frequently feeling numb or having episodes of numbness that last for days or weeks (or longer) at a time. A licensed online therapist can help you determine the underlying cause of your numbness and get you back to feeling a range of emotions again.
The truth is, you don’t have to live like this. You can learn how to face and feel things in a positive, productive way, fostering healthy relationships and finding happiness in your life once again.