If you or someone you love has been demonstrating a lack of emotions, empathy, or responsiveness, it can feel concerning. While everyone may have different social skills and interaction preferences, a lack of presence or emotion in daily interactions over time could indicate emotional detachment and/or the presence of a mental illness.
Understanding the range of conversation types and styles can help those at all levels of socialization feel validated. Understanding what may cause emotional numbness or detachment—including the mental health conditions that could be associated with a lack of outward emotion—could also be helpful in determining whether it may be time to seek help for symptoms of an illness.
Understanding Emotional Detachment
Having no emotional response does not necessarily indicate an underlying mental illness. For example, it could be a temporary state in response to an emotionally traumatic event or a chronic challenge, such as depersonalization. A lack of role models who exhibit healthy emotional responses, a life history of unhealthy relationships, or fear of being emotionally hurt may also contribute to minimal emotional responses. In some cases, an avoidant attachment style could cause reluctance to feel or express emotions, too.
That said, some level of emotional detachment could also be a symptom of a mental illness, from schizophrenia to post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ll examine these in more depth below.
Mental Illnesses In The DSM-5 That May Manifest As Emotional Numbness
Feeling emotionally numb can be a symptom of different medical conditions, medication side effects, or a temporary response to a stressful or traumatic event. That said, a complete, persistent lack of attachment or engagement could indicate the presence of a personality disorder or another mental or cognitive condition.
Below are some of these that can be associated with this type of detachment or disengagement.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of stress disorder and a possible response to having witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, such as a car crash, assault, war, or natural disaster. Each person who develops post-traumatic stress disorder may experience it a bit differently, depending on the triggering event(s), genetics, overall health, and other factors.
Some type or form of emotional detachment may present in certain individuals with post-traumatic stress. Derealization in particular, which “involves feeling detached from people, places, or objects in one’s environment,” could be experienced by someone with post-traumatic stress disorder and may be interpreted by others as a lack of emotion.
Derealization and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are treatable.
Schizoid Personality Disorder
Schizoid personality disorder is a mental health condition that can be characterized by an avoidance of social activities and interpersonal relationships. People with schizoid personality disorder may have a limited range of emotional expressions.
Those diagnosed with this condition might prefer to spend time alone and may unknowingly act dismissive toward others. They may also lack the desire or skills to form close personal relationships with others. However, unlike with certain other conditions, people with this personality disorder may not feel upset about being alone.
Prominent features of schizoid personality disorder may include:
- Avoidance of close relationships
- A lack of desire for sexual relationships
- Little to no response to praise or critical remarks from others
- A lack of motivation or long-term goals.
- Difficulty forming or connecting in relationships
Symptoms of a schizoid personality disorder usually manifest by early adulthood, though some signs may be evident during childhood or teenage years. Features of the disorder may contribute to difficulty functioning in school or work and may cause disruptions in personal and professional areas of life.
Schizotypal Personality Disorder
Individuals with schizotypal personality disorder may have few if any, close relationships. They may have trouble understanding how relationships are formed and may tend to overlook the impact of their behaviors on others. They might also misinterpret the motivations or behaviors of others and feel an overwhelming distrust toward people in general. Despite these internal feelings, they may not show any amount of emotion outwardly.
Schizotypal personality disorder can be formally diagnosed with the presence of five or more of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty interpreting events as they occurred
- Persistent and excessive social anxiety
- A preference to be alone rather than with a group
- Few or no friends
- Frequent inappropriate emotional responses
- A lack of internal or outward emotions; a "blunted/flat affect"
- Vague or unusual patterns of speaking
Schizotypal personality disorder can be diagnosed in early adulthood, and symptoms may last across one's lifetime. Treatment like medication and therapy may help improve some symptoms.
Schizophrenia is a mental illness that can cause disruptions in the way a person interprets reality, which may impair daily functioning. Although people with schizophrenia may appear to have "erratic" behavior, the affected person may show little to no actual emotion when symptoms are active.
Schizophrenia can often be effectively managed with medication and therapy. Some symptoms of schizophrenia can include:
- Confused thinking or speech
- Difficulty concentrating and keeping track of thoughts or conversations
- Social withdrawal
- Taking no interest in everyday social interactions
Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD)
Antisocial personality disorder is a condition that can involve pervasive lying and deception, physical aggression, disregard for the safety of others, and a lack of remorse for actions. Emotions may or may not be shown regularly by an individual with ASPD and could vary during an episode. Although those with this disorder may feel emotions, they might also experience periods of numbness or have difficulty empathizing with the emotions of others. It may be possible for ASPD to be treated with therapeutic interventions in some cases.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism is a form of neurodivergence. Many individuals on the autism spectrum consider it a core identity rather than a condition or disability. The way ASD manifests can vary widely from person to person. Some individuals on the spectrum may have trouble interacting socially—including difficulties with empathy and emotional expression—or even with communicating verbally, while others may not experience such challenges.
Although autism is often associated with a "lack of social skills," various studies suggest that many autistic adults communicate as efficiently with other autistic adults as non-autistic (allistic) adults communicate with other non-autistic adults. Such results may indicate that different forms of communication do not necessarily represent deviations or delays.
Alzheimer's is a form of dementia rather than a mental illness. It causes degeneration of brain structure and function that can affect memory, behavior, and mood. This can cause emotional confusion and difficulty as people living with Alzheimer's attempt to recognize or relate to others.
People with Alzheimer's disease may first exhibit mild personality changes. As the disease progresses, increased memory loss may occur. Decreased cognition and limited emotional responses can become more pronounced with time, and the disease may eventually cause the affected individual to revert to a child-like state that requires 24/7 care.
Is There Treatment Available For Emotional Detachment?
Identifying the underlying cause of emotional detachment is usually a critical step in determining the proper course of treatment.
While you can’t force anyone to seek treatment, you can always seek professional support yourself to cope with the effects of a lack of emotional response in a loved one. If you are personally experiencing symptoms that make you uncomfortable or are even contributing to feelings of anxiety or depression, you might reach out to your primary care provider for evaluation and diagnosis or other treatment options if you’ve already received care for a particular condition. Connecting with a therapist or psychiatrist could also be helpful. Depending on your situation, they might recommend any of the following:
Psychosocial support that focuses on developing communication and vocational skills
Prescription medications to help address symptoms
Some people experiencing mental health challenges prefer to develop in-person relationships with a therapist. Others may feel more comfortable with an approach that allows them to experience counseling in a more relaxed personal setting, such as their own home. In the latter case, online counseling may represent a practical option. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing.
A growing body of evidence points to online therapy as a potentially effective means of helping individuals manage symptoms of emotional impairment. For example, in one wide-ranging review published in Schizophrenia Research, the efficacy of online therapy for those living with psychosis was examined. The report's findings suggest that 74% to 86% of participants successfully utilized online treatments for their symptoms, and 75% to 92% perceived them as helpful.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is It Called When You Don't Have Any Emotions?
"Alexithymia" is an official term for describing difficulty with identifying and expressing emotions to others. Being "emotionless" might also be associated with a traumatic event, dissociation, depersonalization, derealization, difficulty socializing, or a health condition.
What Is Emotional Detachment?
Emotional attachment means experiencing emotional numbness. This state sometimes occurs as a symptom of a mental illness.
Is Emotional Unavailability A Mental Illness?
Emotional unavailability is not a mental illness. However, it can sometimes be a symptom of a mental health condition. If you believe you might be living with a mental health condition, it’s usually recommended that you contact your primary care physician or a mental health professional for screening and referral to services.
- Next Article