When Depression Is Not Sadness: Being Emotionally Numb

By: Jon Jaehnig

Updated September 21, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Patricia Corlew , LMFT, LPC,

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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. Feeling numb once in a while is not uncommon. However, existing in a state of emotional numbness is a sign of potential mental illness health concerns.

Seeking help through mental health services like the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration (SAMSA) is a great first step if you are experiencing emotional numbness. They also have information on substance abuse and mental illness. Their national helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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
  • Trauma
  • Drug abuse
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Seizures
  • Grief
  • Overwhelming Stress

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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 mental illness 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 illness health professional such as a therapist or counselor.

The good news is you can learn how to express emotions once you address the issues that caused trauma. There are ways to cope with feelings of numbness caused by depression once you've learned to identify the root cause of your issues. This is especially true 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 lack of emotion, and experiencing a physical disconnect 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.

For help with substance abuse, mental health issues and mental illness, SAMSA’s national helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Counselors Can Help You Understand The Root Of Your Emotional Numbness
There Is Hope - Click Here To Get Started

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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.

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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."

Finding Help

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.Building a strong and safe support system is a great way to help to through this. Support groups can be made up of family members, friends, spiritual advisors, and other trusting people. For help with substance abuse, mental health issues and mental illness, the SAMSA National Center Helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Furthermore, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

If you are experiencing more severe issues, including those that have lasted persistently for two weeks or more, consult a professional to treat emotional numbness. Experiencing emotional numbness can be emotionally and physically draining on someone who suffers from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and related mental health disorders.

Speaking with a licensed professional can give you a new perspective on numb causes and treatment related to mental health disorders. A licensed professional can give you a new perspective into why you feel numb in response to important situations in your life. As you begin to address important issues that have come up in your life you'll begin to notice that you feel numb less often over time. Research shows that online therapy can be a powerful tool in reduce depression symptoms such as feelings of numbness. 

If emotional numbness has become a serious concern in your life, a great place to begin your healing journey is at BetterHelp. BetterHelp is the world's largest e-counseling platform. The board-certified specialists at BetterHelp provide psychotherapy services and treatment for emotional numbness and other mental health concerns. BetterHelp will help you connect with accessible, affordable, and convenient online counseling to make sure you get the emotional and physical support you need. With thousands of professional and licensed online therapists and counselors ready to provide emotional support 24-hours a day, you can't go wrong. Are you suffering from emotional numbness? 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.

Counselor Reviews

"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."

Conclusion

If you're suffering from emotional numbness or similar symptoms using the tools in this article is a great place to start. Working through the suggestions in this article without success doesn't mean there's no hope -- it just means that your road might be different than someone else's. Just remember that you're never on that road alone. Contact a BetterHelp professional to get help for emotional numbness today.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can Bipolar Disorder Make Me Emotionally Numb?

Yes, bipolar disorder can make you feel emotionally numb. The depressive cycle that bipolar disorder has tends to lead you feeling numb at times. It's not just sadness. With bipolar disorder, you want to make sure that you keep your mental health up, and you seek treatment. Bipolar disorder can be rough, so be vigilant and make sure you're seeking help.For help with substance abuse, mental health issues and mental illness, the SAMSA National Helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

How Does Feeling Numb Affect Our Mental Health?

Being numb can be quite bad for one's mental health. You may think that because being emotionally numb also gets rid of feelings of sadness, anger, and other negative emotions, there is some merit to it. However, these emotions are needed for adequate mental health. Your emotions tell you if something is wrong, and when you feel upset, stressed, or angry, it's important to find the cause.Seeking help through mental health services like the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration (SAMSA) is a great first step. They have a treatment facilities locator, information on symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions, publications on abuse and mental health and mental illness, information on drug abuse, substance abuse facts, mental health disorder treatment, medically reviewed articles on depression and other mental health illnesses, and substance use treatment. Also, building a strong and safe support system can be beneficial as well.

Can Emotional Numbness Be Due To Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

When you have PTSD, one effect you may experience from it is emotional numbness. To you, the trauma is so great that you don't feel anything for it one way or the other. For some with PTSD, the emotions are much more intense, but for others, they may experience no emotions at all, and this can be just as bad for one's mental health.For help with substance abuse, mental health issues and mental illness, the SAMSA National Center Helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Is Being Emotionally Numb a Coping Mechanism?

Some research suggests that emotional numbness may develop as a sort of coping mechanism, acting to desensitize individuals exposed to extreme or continual stress. One study followed nearly 3,500 children over a 6-year period who had been exposed to violence. The study found that the young people became increasingly desensitized, or emotionally numb, over time regardless of age or gender.

When one feels like they don't feel anything, it can be a coping mechanism. Quite often, we try to cope with bad news and other experiences by not having it bother you. To you, it's nothing to be emotional about. While some regulation for your emotions is important, showing emotions is as well, and relying on this coping mechanism can be bad for your mental health.

Can My Emotional Numbness Be Due to a Side Effect from My Antidepressants?

We take antidepressants to control our constant sadness, but these drugs have some side effects. In some occasions, you may feel emotionally numb, and this sensation can feel just as bad as depression. It's always important to talk to your doctor and report feeling numb as a result of your meds. Changing your meds or changing the dose could be the solution to this problem.For help with substance abuse, mental health issues and mental illness, the SAMSA National Center Helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

What Are Some Treatment Options for Numbness?

Feeling emotionally numb does have various treatment options available, and some people who report feeling numb can pursue these. Here are a few of them.

  • Lifestyle changes. Your emotional numbness may be improved by getting more exercise, eating right, and getting outside more. If your emotional numbness is situational, removing yourself from that situation can help as well.
  • Talking to a therapist. Psychotherapy is a way for you to change your behaviors and your emotions, as well as finding the cause of your emotional numbness.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is another treatment option. This method of treatment shows the relationship between our habits and our thoughts, and how one can change the other.
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy. This is another form of therapy that is used for emotional numbness. It's a mindfulness-based approach, teaching people to live in the here and now.
  • Eliminating the sources of stress. Too much stress can lead to emotional numbness, and a therapist or some self-help can allow you to break down your problems into smaller goals that are much easier to digest.
  • Nerve pain medications
  • Controlling blood sugar in people with diabetes through a healthy diet and medication, if needed.
  • Physical therapy exercises to strengthen the spine or help ease movement
  • Surgery to remove a tumor or repair a problem in the spine

Why Do We Lose the Ability to Feel?

When we're feeling empty, there could be many reasons for it. People of all ages, whether children, young adults, or the elderly who have experienced multiple traumas could use emotional numbness as a coping mechanism. It may be due to the medication you're taking.The most common culprits are anti-anxiety medications because these medications may affect how the brain processes mood and emotion.

Sometimes, it could be the result of the symptoms of depression or another mental health issue. Severe levels of acute elevated stress or nervousness can trigger feelings of emotional numbness, as can post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be tied to depression and anxiety, and can cause you to feel numb, too. Eating disorders such as anorexia can have an effect because when the body is malnourished, the body slows down, attempting to preserve life.Postpartum depression is known to cause “brain fog”. Postpartum depression can cause also women to have a difficult time remembering things or thinking of the right words – or any words for that matter. In some cases, your body can become so stressed that you become overtaxed emotionally and physically fatigued. That depletion of both emotional and physical energy can create emotional numbness.

There are several ways that emotional numbness can occur. Stress hormones can flood your systems and cause different reactions within the body that can lead to emotional numbness. For example, stress hormones can affect the limbic system. The limbic system is located near the center of your brain and is responsible for your emotions. Stress hormones can also affect other hormones in your body, which in turn can affect your mood. Both effects can cause you to feel numb.

If you are feeling numb and emotionally detached, attending support groups or building a strong and safe support system can be beneficial. Furthermore, SAMSA’s National Center Helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for information on substance abuse, mental health and mental illness.

What is emotional detachment disorder?

Emotional detachment is an inability or unwillingness to connect with other people on an emotional level. For some people, being emotionally detached helps protect them from unwanted drama, anxiety, or stress. For others, the detachment isn't always voluntary.

People who are emotionally detached or removed may show it as:

  • Difficulty creating or maintaining personal relationships
  • A lack of attention, or appearing preoccupied when around others
  • Difficulty being loving or affectionate with family members
  • Avoiding people, activities, or places because they’re associated with a past trauma or event
  • Reduced ability to express emotion
  • Difficulty empathizing with another person’s feelings
  • Not easily sharing emotions or feelings
  • Difficulty committing to another person or a relationship
  • Not making another person a priority when they should be

What causes emotional detachment?

Emotional detachment is an inability or unwillingness to connect with other people on an emotional level. For some people, being emotionally detached helps protect them from unwanted drama, anxiety, or stress.For others, the detachment isn’t always voluntary. It’s instead the result of events that make the person unable to be open and honest about their emotions.Emotional detachment can be helpful if you use it purposefully. You may set boundaries with certain people or groups. It helps you stay at an arm’s length from people who demand a lot of your emotional attention.

But emotional detachment can also be harmful when you can’t control it. You may feel “numbed” or “muted.” This is known as emotional blunting, and it’s typically a symptom or issue that should be addressed by a mental health provider.

Below you’ll read about the different types of emotional detachment and learn when it’s a good thing and when it might be worrisome.

People who are emotionally detached or removed may show it as:

  • Difficulty creating or maintaining personal relationships
  • A lack of attention, or appearing preoccupied when around others
  • Difficulty being loving or affectionate with a family member
  • Avoiding people, activities, or places because they’re associated with a past trauma or event
  • Reduced ability to express emotion
  • Difficulty empathizing with another person’s feelings
  • Not easily sharing emotions or feelings
  • Difficulty committing to another person or a relationship
  • Not making another person a priority when they should be

Does emotional blunting go away?

Most people have experienced the sensation of being emotionally numb at least once in their lifetime, usually after or during an occurrence of traumatic stress. For most people, this involves a temporary feeling of dissociation or disconnection from the body and outside world. However, despite how it may feel, emotional numbness is not permanent. Treatment is available to provide both immediate relief and long-term remission. The first step in treating emotional numbness is to seek out advice on diagnosis and treatment to identify and treat the underlying cause.

What does it mean if you have no emotions?

It’s sometimes difficult to imagine someone could have no emotions, but it does happen to children, young adults, and adults. Depression and anxiety are two of the most common causes. Severe levels of acute elevated stress or nervousness can also trigger feelings of emotional numbness. Post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be tied to depression and anxiety, can cause you to feel numb, too.The Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration (SAMSA) website at www.samhsa.gov has many helpful mental health services tools to assist you and a wealth of information ranging from abuse and mental health disorder treatment to information on drug abuse, substance use treatment, substance abuse, medically reviewed articles on depression and other mental health illnesses, and mental illness. Treatment facilities can also assist you with helpful information. In addition, attending support groups or building a strong and safe support system can be beneficial as well. Their national helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

How can you tell if someone is emotionally detached?

  • A difficulty creating or maintaining personal relationships.
  • A lack of attention, or appearing preoccupied when around others.
  • A difficulty being loving or affectionate with a family member.
  • Avoiding people, activities, or places because they’re associated with a past trauma or event
  • Reduced ability to express emotion
  • Difficulty empathizing with another person’s feelings
  • Not easily sharing emotions or feelings
  • Difficulty committing to another person or a relationship
  • Not making another person a priority when they should be

How do you emotionally detach from someone?

  • Find the reason for detachment and the person/ thing of attachment. Ask yourself why
  • You need to let it out
  • Start little by little
  • Seek and look forward
  • No shortcuts and detours
  • Think forward
  • Forgive
  • Heal
  • Be grateful
  • Move Forward

Is emotional detachment a mental illness?

Emotional detachment is a psychological condition and mental illness in which a person is not able to fully engage with their feelings or the feelings of others. It can be ongoing, as it is in people with attachment disorders, or it can be a temporary response to an extreme situation.It can also affect children, young adult, and adults. For help with or information on mental health issues and mental illness, the SAMSA National Center Helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a child can develop two types of attachment disorders: Reactive Attachment Disorder and Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder.

Reactive Attachment Disorder

Children may develop reactive attachment disorder (RAD) due to negative experiences with adults in their early years.

Symptoms of RAD include:

  • Having difficulty calming down
  • Showing little or no emotions when they are interacting with other people
  • Not looking for comfort from their primary caregivers
  • Appearing unhappy, scared, sad, or irritable when taking part in normal activities with the primary caregiver

Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder

Symptoms of disinhibited social engagement disorder in a child include:

  • Being overly friendly with people they do not know
  • Walking up to strangers and perhaps hugging them
  • Allowing strangers to pick them up
  • Not checking with their primary caregivers when they are in a stranger situation

Potential symptoms of an attachment disorder in adults can include:

  • Difficulty opening up
  • Challenging intimate relationships
  • Poor listening skills
  • A lack of physical, verbal, or sexual contact
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Substance abuse
  • Ambivalence

Support groups is a great way to learn more about these disorders as well as learning from other parents whose children struggle with the disorders as well.

For help with substance abuse, mental health issues and mental illness, the SAMSA National Center Helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

What do you call a person with no emotions?

Schizoid personality disorder is characterized by a long-standing pattern of detachment from social relationships. A person with schizoid personality disorder often has difficulty expressing emotions and does so typically in very restricted range, especially when communicating with others.

Can someone not have emotions?

Despite the name, the real problem for people with alexithymia isn't so much that they have no words for their emotions, but that they lack the emotions themselves. Still, not everyone with the condition has the same experiences.Attending support groups or building as safe support system would be one helpful way for you if you’re not experiencing any emotions whatsoever.

What is alexithymia?

Alexithymia is a subclinical phenomenon involving a lack of emotional awareness or, more specifically, difficulty in identifying and describing feelings and in distinguishing feelings from the bodily sensations of emotional arousal. Peter Sifneos, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, first described alexithymia in the early 1970s. The word comes from Greek: ‘a’ meaning lack, ‘lexis’ meaning word, and ‘thymos’ meaning emotion — overall, it means having a lack of words for emotions. Up to 13% of the population experience alexithymia, according to some research. It is more common in males than females.

Signs and symptoms of alexithymia include:

  • Difficulties identifying feelings and emotions
  • Problems distinguishing between emotions and bodily sensations that relate to those emotions
  • Limited ability to communicate feelings to others
  • Difficulties recognizing and responding to emotions in others, including tone of voice and facial expressions
  • A lack of fantasies and imagination, making it difficult to imagine outside of reality.
  • A logical and rigid thinking style that does not account for emotions
  • Poor coping skills when it comes to dealing with stress
  • Behaving less altruistically than others
  • Appearing distant, rigid, and humorless
  • Poor life satisfaction

Experts do not understand the exact cause of alexithymia. Some studies suggest that it may result from one or more of the following:

  • Research on twins indicates that there is a genetic component to alexithymia. People are more likely to have alexithymia if close family members also have it.
  • Environmental factors. The same twin study also indicates that environmental factors play a role in alexithymia. Examples of environmental factors include a history of childhood trauma, the presence of a physical or mental health condition, or socioeconomic factors.
  • Brain injury. Research reports that people with injury to a part of the brain known as the anterior insula experience increased levels of alexithymia.

Risk factors for alexithymia include:

  • Being male, with one study reporting that men experience alexithymia almost twice as often as women
  • Advancing age
  • A low level of education
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Low emotional intelligence

To date, there isn’t a single individual treatment for alexithymia. The exact treatment approach depends on your overall health needs. For example, if you have depression or anxiety, taking certain medications for these conditions could also help emotional health symptoms.Therapies may also be helpful for this condition. These allow you to participate in exercises to help improve emotional health.Possible therapy options include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Group therapy
  • Psychotherapy (also known as “talk therapy”)

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