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How To Deal With Emotional Numbness

Discover guidance for helping to overcome emotional numbness


Do you feel an all-encompassing sense of emptiness? Do you feel distant and cut off from other people? Have you lost interest in things that you used to enjoy? These feelings may describe emotional numbness, a state of generalized disconnection, disinterest, and detachment.

Emotional numbness may limit your ability to both express and experience emotions and may cause you to feel disconnected from the world (Flack et al., 2000). These feelings can be present in many psychiatric conditions including depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Emotional numbness is distinct from anhedonia, which is a loss or reduction in positive emotions like joy and pleasure. Emotional numbness affects a broad range of emotions including negative ones like fear and sadness (Eskelund et al., 2018).

Emotional numbness may produce any of the following symptoms (Palyo et al., 2008):

  • Diminished or complete loss of interest in significant activities.

  • Feelings of detachment or estrangement from other people.

  • Restricted emotional range.

  • Episodic or ongoing amnesia.

  • A sense of a foreshortened future.

Many of the signs of emotional numbness overlap with signs of depression (Ma et al., 2021). A loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, an inability to feel pleasure, a loss of motivation, and feelings of apathy may indicate either depression or emotional numbness. However, depression also often includes a loss of self-esteem, sadness, guilt, suicidal ideation, and a preoccupation with the past. Although these feelings can exist in a person with emotional numbness, they are generally not present while in a numb state. You may alternate between feeling depressed and feeling emotionally numb.

In a numb state, you may only be able to experience intense emotions like anger and rage. These feelings may emerge at inappropriate times when you are unable to access other emotions. For example, psychiatrist and emotional numbness specialist Hillel Glover describes a persistently numb patient who was attending the funeral of a loved one. This patient exploded into a rage at the funeral, likely because he could not access his feelings of sadness, grief, and mourning. In an especially intense, explosive, and long-lasting rage, you may lose all feelings of care and concern for others and for the consequences of your actions. Afterward, you may become withdrawn and unresponsive for an extended period. You may even experience amnesia and be unable to recall the event.

Emotional numbness may cause you to feel hollow, dead, shut down, or with an empty sense of not having any feelings (Litz & Gray, 2002). You may feel a profound sense of emotional withdrawal and a lack of relatedness to others. You may have difficulties falling asleep because lying still intensifies your feelings of “deadness”. These feelings may cause you to crave constant movement. You may self-medicate with alcohol or with illicit drugs to counteract this emptiness and to feel energetic and active.

A feeling of profound numbness may cause you to feel that your body is transparent, that other people can literally see through you, or that you can walk through walls because your body has no physical substance. You may also feel disconnected from your own identity. You may wonder who you are. You may adapt to these feelings by creating a self-image or identity with clearly defined visual elements, such as “combat warrior” or “fashionista”.

How to Deal With Emotional Numbness

Several therapeutic techniques may be effective in helping you overcome your emotional numbness. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered the gold standard in treatment for many of the conditions that underlie emotional numbness (Foa & Meadows, 1997). CBT includes a range of talking therapies that address the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Effective CBT may be able to help you identify and address harmful and distorted thinking patterns such as those experienced in a hyperarousal state. CBT may also help you safely confront your fears and anxieties and overcome your emotional numbness.

In the absence of systematic treatment under the guidance of a mental health professional, there may be other techniques and procedures that may help you cope with your feelings of emotional numbness.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to experience the present moment without judgment (Berceli & Napoli, 2006). When you are mindful, you accept and acknowledge all of your thoughts and feelings, even the negative ones. Mindfulness training may decrease symptoms of both hyperarousal and emotional numbness (Stephenson et al., 2017). Being able to ground yourself in the here and now may help you reconnect with the world and overcome your feelings of numbness.

Art or Art Therapy

​Creating artwork or participating in art therapy may help you create a coherent and comprehensible narrative of your emotional numbness and the conditions that may have led to it. You may find it very difficult to use words to express the upsetting emotions and memories that may underlie your emotional numbness. Visual forms of expression such as art may help you process these difficult and upsetting emotions and construct a coherent narrative of any underlying trauma (Collie et al., 2006).


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References

  • Berceli, D., & Napoli, M. (2006). A Proposal for a Mindfulness-Based Trauma Prevention Program for Social Work Professionals. Complementary Health Practice Review, 11(3), 153-165.

  • Collie, K., Backos, A., Malchiodi, C., & Spiegel, D. (2006). Art Therapy for Combat-Related PTSD: Recommendations for Research and Practice. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 23(4), 157-164.

  • Eskelund, K., Karstoft, K. I., & Andersen, S. B. (2018). Anhedonia and emotional numbing in treatment-seeking veterans: behavioural and electrophysiological responses to reward. European journal of psychotraumatology, 9(1).

  • Flack, W. F., Litz, B. T., Hsieh, F. Y., Kaloupek, D. G., & Keane, T. M. (2000). Predictors of emotional numbing, revisited: A replication and extension. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 13, 611-618.

  • Foa, E. B., & Meadows, E. A. (1997). Psychosocial treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder: A Critical Review. Annual Reviews of Psychology, 48, 449-480.

  • Glover, H. (n.d.) Hillel Glover, MD.

  • Litz, B. T., & Gray, M. J. (2002). Emotional numbing in posttraumatic stress disorder: current and future research directions. The Australian and New Zealand journal of psychiatry, 36(2), 198-204.

  • Ma, H., Cai, M., & Wang, H. (2021). Emotional Blunting in Patients With Major Depressive Disorder: A Brief Non-systematic Review of Current Research. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12.

  • Palyo, S. A., Clapp, J. D., Beck, G., Grant, D. M., & Marques, L. (2008). Unpacking the Relationship Between Posttraumatic Numbing and Hyperarousal in a Sample of Help-Seeking Motor Vehicle Accident Survivors: Replication and Extension. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21(2), 235-238.

  • Stephenson, K. R., Simpson, T. L., Martinez, M. E., & Kearney, D. J. (2017). Changes in Mindfulness and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms Among Veterans Enrolled in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Journal of clinical psychology, 73(3), 201-217.

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