Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by anxiety and depression you basically shut down emotionally? Ever been on mental health medication that made you feel just… flat? Has past trauma lowered your ability to identify your emotions?
If you said “yes” to any of these questions, you’ve likely experienced emotional numbness.
“Emotional numbness involves feeling as if your emotions and thoughts are dulled, hollowed out, deadened or tamped down,” Deborah Serani, Psy.D., who specializes in depression, anxiety, trauma and postpartum disorders, told The Mighty.
Though we typically associate people with mental illness feeling a lot, the truth is, sometimes people struggling with their mental health may feel little to nothing at all. Some other symptoms of emotional numbness can include:
- Feeling apathetic
- Lack of interest or pleasure in doing things you usually love (also known as anhedonia)
- Struggling with boredom or emptiness
- Feeling as if things aren’t real
- Being unable to cry
- Withdrawing from others
- Struggling with memory or cognition
Dr. Serani explained emotional numbness is clinically described as “dissociation,” an experience of disconnecting from your thoughts, feelings and memories. Dissociation can occur periodically or may feel as if it’s happening all the time.
The “cause” of emotional numbness can be difficult to pinpoint, but in many cases, it’s trauma-related or medication-related. To find out what specific circumstances contributed to people’s experience of emotional numbness, we turned to our Mighty community. Below they shared some of the reasons they began to feel emotionally numb.
Before we begin, we want to remind you if you’ve been feeling numb, you’re not alone. If emotional numbness is interfering with your relationships, work or daily functioning, there is help available. To find a therapist in your area, head here. To get immediate support from a community that cares, we encourage you to post a Thought or Question on The Mighty with the hashtag #CheckInWithMe.
Here are some reasons you might be feeling emotionally numb:
1. Increased Stress
From contributing to worsening symptoms of anxiety and depression to high blood pressure, stress can be physically and mentally debilitating. It’s no surprise that heightened stress may also contribute to feeling emotionally numb.
“After a lot of stress, I am drained. I find it hard to feel enough to feel a mood if I can even get up the strength. After a stressful event, I am so drained — I am tired both physically and mentally.” — Maddie C.
“For me it’s usually when I’m extremely overwhelmed by multiple things like school, family, work and my anxiety. It keeps me from being present in my own life. I’m there physically but not emotionally or mentally. To cope with it, I usually just start in one place and work through it like making a to-do list. This makes me think in the moment of the things that need to be done or fixed and the different pathways of getting it done.” — Adriana G.
Serani told The Mighty some psychiatric medications and recreational drugs can make people feel emotionally flat.
“Certain medications like antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and psychotropic medications are known to blunt emotional responsiveness,” she said.
If you think you may be experiencing emotional numbness due to medication, talk to your doctor. Sometimes changing your dosage level or the time you take it can help. Other times, changing medication altogether can be effective.
“My everyday life when I was medicated. There were no ‘bad’ feelings, but the good was always out of reach as well. So it was a never-ending emotional numbness. I couldn’t express pure joy or actual sadness. People called me ‘cold,’ because I didn’t react like they wanted me to. I felt wrong and started isolating myself, so I wouldn’t end up hurting someone’s feelings, even though they were technically hurting mine.” — Jeanette T.
“I was for a while, and it took going off my meds to realize that it was the [medication]. I just didn’t care much about anything, and I never felt happy. I never really felt much of anything honestly. It was dark and hard to deal with. Getting off [my meds] was great for me.” — Taylor B.
3. Dealing With Rejection
It’s a common defense mechanism to deal with painful feelings by becoming numb to them. When it comes to rejection, this may be especially true. If you are struggling with emotional numbness due to a recent rejection, it’s helpful to reach out for support from a trusted mental health professional or loved one in your life.
“Stress and rejection. I have gotten used to being rejected in so many ways, I just go numb. In searching to find the best healthcare team I just went numb to the responses because they were all the same. It’s sad, but a harsh reality.” — Jae M.
4. Judgment for Sexual Identity
It’s no secret that members of the LGBTQ+ community experience judgment at higher rates than their straight counterparts. According to the Trevor Project, two-thirds of LGBTQ youth reported someone in their life attempted to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. This kind of judgment can traumatic and may lead to feelings of emotional numbness. If you identify as LGBTQ and are feeling suicidal, there is help available to you. Contact the Trevor Project lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.
“Judgment from my homophobic family.” — Terry B.
5. Death of a Loved One
After the death of a loved one, it’s common to feel numb as if you’re walking through life and it doesn’t feel real. Many people who go through significant losses like these may struggle with crying or feeling anything at all. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
“I can’t handle death. For example, when my biological father passed away, I went completely numb to everything. It was too much hitting me at once so my brain decided to feel nothing. I never noticed until people asked how I was because I put what I had left into taking care of my aunt in her grief. It was a little while before the numbness went away and I was finally able to cry.” — Jessica N.
“My grandad passed away at the end of June this year and still to the day I feel numb. I don’t remember hardly anything about the days following his death. I’ve lived and taken care of him and my grandma for four years so he was more of a dad to me than anything. I still don’t believe he’s gone no matter how many times I go in their house and expect him to be there sitting in his chair in the living room.” — Maycen P.
6. Past Abuse
Trauma of any kind can contribute to emotional numbness, but people who experienced childhood trauma growing up may be particularly vulnerable. In order to survive childhood abuse, many kids shut out their emotional responses because it’s too painful to live with day after day. Those who grew up numbing themselves emotionally may have difficulties in adulthood with emotional processing.
“It’s getting better, but it was a defense mechanism created from years of emotional abuse. I realized how detrimental it was when someone said, ‘Doesn’t that bother you?’ I thought to myself that maybe things should bother me a little more… feeling things feels a lot better.” — Maddy F.
7. Pregnancy Difficulties or Miscarriage
Going through a difficult pregnancy or having a miscarriage can be truly devastating — especially because many people trying to become parents struggle in silence. If you are trying to cope with the aftermath of either of these circumstances, you’re not alone.
“After my miscarriage, I was numb. It was my way of coping until I was ready to feel that pain.” — Susan T.
“I have experienced [emotional numbness] three times — once was in the post-natal period after having hyperemesis during pregnancy and a long home birth, another time was after a stressful event in the family courts when my abusive ex got given daily care of our three children despite his behavior and the other time was after being prescribed hormonal contraceptives. The post-natal numbness was my brain dissociating with physical pain/discomfort during pregnancy and continued for about three to four years after… still coming right but I know it will lift fully eventually as the better days are now outweighing the bad.” — Maire M.
8. Feeling Too Many Emotions All at Once
If you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed with your emotions, it’s easy to go into “shutdown mode.” Whether that looks like depression or numbness, you’re in good company. For anyone who feels “too emotional” or “not emotional enough,” we recommend learning the Wise Mind dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skill.
“Due to PTSD/dissociating, my brain checks out anytime I feel anything too intense and I go numb instead. My therapy has been focused on easing into feeling the physical sensations and being present in my body so my brain can properly process emotions and get myself to the point I can feel things more normally. When I’m numb, I fall into depression, because I’m so disconnected and I have no drive to do anything.” — Jessica C.
“When everything just hits you all at once, and all of the emotions run over you repeatedly, and so often, that you just can’t even feel them anymore.” — Lindsay P.
“It became a survival tactic for me. Feeling nothing was a better alternative to the constant state of panic I was living in. There are several years of my life I still can’t remember because I was living in this fog. Luckily I had a few good friends who loved me enough to help pull me out of it and encourage me to get help.” — Victoria F.
If you’re struggling with emotional numbness, you’re not alone. Regardless of what you’re feeling about your current struggles (frustrated, hopeless, apathetic, etc.), your feelings are valid.
The best treatment for emotional numbness often depends on whether your experience is related to current circumstances, trauma or medication. For the first two, psychotherapy can be hugely beneficial. For medication concerns, seek out counsel from your primary care physician or psychiatrist. As a reminder, healing from emotional numbness takes time, so we encourage you to be gentle with yourself as you figure out what treatment works best for you.
“As you address emotional numbness with self-care, psychotherapy and support from loved ones, you’ll begin to feel a greater range of emotional experiences,” Serani added.
For more from our mental health community, check out the following stories:
- 13 ‘Habits’ of People Who Felt ‘Emotionally Numb’ Growing Up
- When Depression Makes Me Numb, Not Sad
- When Antidepressants Give You a ‘Numb Vagina’