Emotional Numbing: What It Is And How To Tell If You Are Suffering From It

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
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Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by your feelings that the only thing you can do is shut them off? Rather than fall into an all-encompassing despair, you just decide that you won’t feel anything? Not feeling anything at all is certainly a welcome idea when the only other option is sadness or despair. That’s why sometimes it feels easier to shut down than to sink into those awful feelings. Shutting down your emotions makes you feel like you have control when you may not.

Turning off your emotions is also known as emotional numbing. And while it may feel like a good idea in the moment, emotional numbness is not a long-term solution. It’s hard to face the negative feelings we have, but emotional numbing can make it even harder to heal.

That’s because turning off your feelings when you’re hurting is a temporary solution to a long-term problem. Not having to worry about whatever it is that you’re feeling — especially if that feeling is pain — is a relief. Numbing your emotions means that you won’t start crying in the middle of the grocery store because you’re breaking. It protects you from getting hurt even more, and when you’re deep in some serious shit, that’s all you want.

“Emotional numbing is the mental and emotional process of shutting out feelings and may be experienced as deficits of emotional responses or reactivity,” Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT, licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center explains to Very Well Mind.

So basically, emotional numbing is shutting down any feelings before they have the chance to escape. Emotional numbing is a common side effect of PTSD and anxiety. But if you suffer from depression, stress, or various forms of abuse, it can also be a symptom. Additionally, it’s also connected to grief. Trauma may also lead to emotional numbing as a means of survival. When you’re already feeling overwhelmed, numbing feels like the best way to cope. But there’s a risk that not allowing yourself to feel anything can eventually become second nature.

You’re likely emotionally numbing because you either feel it’s your only option for survival. But over time, you simply won’t be able to change.

Not sure if what you’re doing is emotional numbing? Here are some common signs:

– A loss of enjoyment in things you used to enjoy. If you just sit in front of the television and let it watch you more than you watch it, that could be a sign.

– Detachment from people. Of course, life gets busy sometimes. But if you’re consciously avoiding people because you can’t deal with being seen, it may be a sign of something bigger.

– Feeling physically and emotionally flat. Again, we all have our “off” days, but if it’s overwhelming or extended, you may be emotionally numbing.

Dr. Jonice Webb, a psychologist who focuses on childhood emotional neglect, mentions that anger and irritability are also signs of emotional numbing. And if you often feel like you’re operating on autopilot? Webb suggests that’s also a sign of emotional numbness.

“Like a toy soldier or an energizer bunny, you just keep on going. But you also find yourself wondering what it’s all for,” she writes. She also mentions that not being able to deal with other people’s emotions is a common trait of emotional numbing. You may feel discomfort at people’s strong emotions or might even feel envious that they’re feeling something and you’re not.

“While emotional numbing blocks or shuts down negative feelings and experiences, it also shuts down the ability to experience pleasure, engage in positive interactions and social activities, and interferes with openness for intimacy, social interests, and problem-solving skills,” Mendez says.

And that’s the hardest part of emotional numbing. Not feeling negative feelings often leads to not feeling positive feelings either. Because you’re spending so much time living in a space where you are just operating on auto-pilot. Not taking time to really try to reconnect with your feelings can lead to long-term emotional damage. You no longer know how to connect with the moments of joy in your life.

The best way to overcome emotional numbness is to seek professional help. A mental health professional — preferably one who focuses on trauma-based care — will be able to give you the skills you need to cope. A therapist will help you figure out the root cause of your trauma and why you’re numbing your emotions in the first place. Additionally, they provide you with a safe space to work through your problems.

“Learning and practicing cognitive-behavioral strategies for managing stress, traumatic experiences, depression, and anxiety can help tame negative thoughts and avoid defensive patterns of coping that are inefficient and invalidating of emotional processing and problem-solving,” Mendez explains.

Working through the trauma causing you to emotionally numb yourself is key. Spending time with a therapist or psychologist will enable you to get your life back. And their help could prevent you from turning to emotional numbing in the future.

However, not everyone has the means or access to professional help. If you can’t get professional help, finding someone you trust to talk to could still help. Finding ways to get out of your head, whatever that means, can be good tools as well. Some people turn to physical activity like running or yoga. Others may try meditation or something similar. Getting enough rest at night is an option, but that may be hard. PTSD, depression, anxiety and the like certainly can make consistent sleep practically impossible.

Emotional numbing is a temporary way of dealing with your problems. Usually, it leads to a whole different set of problems. And the long-term effects can be worse than confronting your emotional traumas. Finding the help you need to work through your problems is truly the only way out.

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