When Depression Is Not Sadness: Being Emotionally Numb
By Sarah Fader
Updated November 04, 2019
Reviewer Patricia Corlew , LMFT, LPC,
When we see depression depicted in the media and entertainment, we are often exposed to representations of people who are breaking down, crying, etc. Despite what you have been led to believe, this common depiction of depression is not its only face. Depression, in fact, has many faces. One of the faces that we are going to talk about today is emotional numbness. What does it mean to feel emotionally numb, how do we become emotionally numb, and how can we recover from these feelings of numbness as well as our depression?
What Is Emotional Numbness?
Emotional numbness cannot be clinically described; and that is why it is so hard for people to identify it within themselves. Some people describe emotional numbness as like being inside a vacuum - there's nothing around you but void. Not being able to feel any emotions can make it hard for the individual to realize that they are suffering from depression - especially because depression is so often represented as sadness.
Besides the lack of emotions that one experiences, the numbness branches out into the physical realm as well. When you are emotionally numb, you may feel that everything you are experiencing is not real, and you may feel disconnected from yourself and the people and the world around you. In a nutshell, being emotionally numb is like living your life as a robot.
How Do We Become Emotionally Numb?
Emotional numbness is not something that mentally healthy people experience. Emotional numbness is usually a side-effect of several different traumatic situations or mental illnesses. The list of things that may trigger emotional numbness includes:
- A Major Depressive Episode
- Severe Anxiety or a Major Anxiety Attack
- Drug abuse
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Overwhelming Stress
Keep in mind that these are only a few of the situations that may trigger emotional numbness within you. If you work on some of these areas and you feel as though the symptoms aren't going away or are getting stronger, it may be a part of a larger problem: Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder.
Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder is a disorder that includes some of the above symptoms of emotional numbness as well as more concerning symptoms such as feeling as though your body and your memories aren't yours, feeling that you're outside your body, and feeling as though your reality is distorted. Experts aren't entirely sure what causes it but is usually follows severe trauma and can be treated with medication or talk therapy. If you can relate to these symptoms, visit a mental health professional as soon as possible.
How Can One Battle Emotional Numbness?
The road to recovery from any mental illness is a difficult one. It is also one that often requires the help of someone who is well-equipped to deal with our situations and feelings, like a mental health professional such as a therapist or counselor.
However, there are ways to cope with feelings of numbness on your own, especially if the feelings are mild or if you believe that they will go away after you have had time to adjust to new life circumstances. Here are a few methods that you can use to battle your emotional numbness:
- Scrap Your Routine
Feeling numb can make doing daily tasks an impossible feat. To counteract this lack of desire, try switching up your routine and doing something new. You don't have to go out and skydive to make a change. You can do something as simple as taking a different route to work. This kind of adventure and change may be just the push you need to wake up the dormant emotions inside of you.
- Start a Journal
A journal is one of the best ways to work through your feelings, even if you may feel as though you have none in the moment. Every day, sit down and take some time to go through some of the events that occurred. Always ask yourself, how do I feel about this? With practice, you will begin to identify and work through some feelings that you didn't know you were having.
- Do Things That You Used to Enjoy
Feeling numb prevents us from enjoying activities that usually bring us joy. Over time, we may stop engaging in these activities, which will only make us feel worse.
Although it will be difficult, challenge yourself to get back into these hobbies. If you used to paint, paint as much as you possibly can. If you used to sing, write a bunch of songs on how you are currently feeling. You may not feel connected with yourself at first, but these types of activities will help you to get back to your feelings.
- Relax And Take Care Of Yourself
The amount of stress people deal with today can be tremendous; and as a result, it can lead to the events that trigger emotional numbness. If you are feeling overwhelmed by your life, apply the brakes. Take some time to figure out what is adding to your stress and how you can cut down on those stressful aspects. You will also need to search for some activities that will help you become healthier, happier, and more relaxed.
When you prioritize self care during your day, you might do any of the following:
- Wake up and stretch your body
- Practice Mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes
- Pray, show your gratitude, and say some positive affirmations throughout your day
- Take a warm shower or bath while using aromatherapy body wash and shampoo
- Eat a healthy breakfast to help you get energized for the day
- Listen to some uplifting music as you get ready for work
- Do some exercise during your lunch break, even if it's just a light walk around your building or around the block
- After work, allow yourself to unwind with your favorite activity - or just take a scenic route home
- Read a book about something that interests you before bead
- Go to bed at a decent time to make sure that you get at least 7 hours of sleep
Remember, these are just examples. Feel free to adjust it where you see fit; but make sure that your routine focuses on producing a healthier, happier you. A routine that adds stress will only set you back on your path.
- Latch Onto Whatever Emotions Come Your Way
The next time that you are doing something, and you feel an emotion latch onto it. Sometimes, we experience emotional numbness because we refuse to let ourselves feel emotions that we feel are inappropriate or a waste of time. When an emotion comes your way, acknowledge that emotion and accept it into your life. If you feel enraged, allow yourself to feel that emotion fully. If you feel unbearably sad, let the tears flow. No matter what comes your way, let yourself know that it is okay to feel and love the fact that you are finally able to feel these emotions.
Don't mistake this advice and use it as a reason to dwell on your emotions, however. That is not what this exercise is intended to do. The idea is to acknowledge your emotions and work through them. Dwelling on them or focusing on only one emotion will feed your mental illnesses and make you feel worse.
- Do Something That Makes You Feel Alive
Remember how I stated earlier that you don't have to skydive to spark a feeling? While you certainly don't have to, if it is something that appeals to you, then check in to it. Activities that get your blood pumping and your mind racing can restart that life inside of you. Go bungee jumping. Take a solo ride in a small airplane. Race down the world's largest waterslide. The options are endless.
If you prefer not to do activities like these, you can achieve the same effect by doing something that scares you instead. Maybe you are afraid of telling someone that you like them. Maybe you are afraid of telling your boss that you want to quit so you can pursue a better position at a competing company. Whatever it is that excites you and terrifies you, go after it. Make a list of them and commit to crossing off one item daily. Feel the exhilaration that comes with taking life into your own hands.
These things might make you feel better - or just something - but they also might be good for you. We pass up lots of great opportunities because we are afraid or holding out for something that may never come. But there's an old expression that says "anything worth doing should scare you a little and excite you a lot."
This article is a great place to start understanding and combatting emotional numbness. Hopefully, following up on what you've read here will help you get your life back. Unfortunately, some people can't simply switch up their routine or meditate more or express more gratitude and see their symptoms go away. Some people need some extra help.
If that describes you, a great place to continue your healing journey is at BetterHelp, the group that produced this article, is also the world's largest e-counseling platform. BetterHelp will help you connect with accessible, affordable, and convenient online counseling. With thousands of professional and licensed online therapists and counselors, you can't go wrong. Click on the link above to take a short questionnaire that will connect you with the right counselor for you or, if you're not convinced yet, keep reading for reviews from BetterHelp clients who have gone through similar experiences to yours and come out of the other side.
"Chris has helped my manage my depression and anxiety in meaningful, productive ways. He helps me gain a clearer perspective and identify negative thought patterns that are at odds with a healthy, positive outlook. I would recommend Chris to anybody else trying to deal with their depression."
"I put off finding a therapist for a long time. I dreaded my first conversation with Neil and all the awkward, clunky explanations I'd have to give about my depression and anxiety. All of the things that felt like dirty little secrets that caused me so much pain. But I was so pleasantly surprised by the way Neil accurately picked up on what I was saying and gave me more insight into how my brain was working. It made my issue feel so much less of a personal problem and more of a universal problem we could examine together. He always gives me a thoughtful response within a day or two any time I send a message. I actually think we've made more progress in between sessions just by being able to communicate things that are coming up in real time. Neil is intelligent and kind. I really appreciate his communication style and highly recommend him."
Using the tools in this article will be a great place to start, whether they're enough for your unique needs or not. If working through the suggestions in this article aren't enough, it doesn't mean that there's not hope - it just means that your road might be a bit longer than someone else's. Just remember that you're never on that road alone.