Life is full of ups and downs. In many ways, it can feel like we’re on an emotional rollercoaster.
We feel the euphoric rush of happiness and excitement, as well as the gut-churning lows of sadness and guilt. But, ultimately, it makes the fairground ride of life worth it.
Imagine if it wasn’t like this though. What if you felt emotionless and numb? Yes, you wouldn’t be able to feel the lows — but you wouldn’t be able to experience highs either.
Many of us feel emotionless from time to time. But if this feeling sticks, it can be really distressing.
It’s not something to downplay either. Because if you’ve experienced a sense of emptiness or numbness for a while, it might be a sign that there’s something deeper at play.
What is emotional numbness?
Some people describe these feelings of emptiness as emotional numbness or emotional detachment.
Emotional numbness can leave you feeling detached from friends and family, you might lose interest in the activities that once brought you joy and, because you feel flat, you might find it difficult to fully participate in life.
Simply put, it’s when you shut out or struggle to feel your feelings.
Feeling emotionless might seem okay from the outside. But, for those who experience it, it can be truly isolating and distressing.
Although it offers temporary relief from pain, emotional numbness can have long-term consequences. Because just as we block or shut out negative emotions, we also push away positive experiences and connections too.
Why do I feel emotionless?
Numbness can also be a side effect of some medications such as antidepressants. But more often than not, we develop emotional numbness as a coping mechanism. It’s a way of shutting ourselves off from something that is extremely painful or overwhelming.
Sometimes feeling emotionless can be traced back to a traumatic event. For instance, we might have disconnected and detached from what’s going on as a way to keep ourselves safe.
Alternatively, this feeling might have built up gradually over time because we didn’t know how to cope with overwhelming emotions like depression or anxiety. Other times, it happens because we didn’t learn the tools to validate, feel or process our emotions.
Quite often, numbness is a fleeting experience. But it can become a problem if it lasts. Some common causes of emotional numbness include:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Physical or emotional abuse
- Substance abuse
- Avoiding your emotions
It’s a common misconception that people with depression feel sad all the time. The truth is depression affects everyone differently.
Some people might experience an overwhelming feeling of nothingness or emptiness, and they may even struggle to cry.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that develops in response to a life-threatening event. Examples of traumatic events might include: being in a car crash, being physically or sexually assaulted or surviving a natural disaster.
Many people with PTSD say that they ‘re-experience’ the traumatic event over and over through vivid flashbacks and nightmares.
It can be terrifying and traumatic so, understandably, many people with PTSD try to push memories of the event out of their mind. For instance, they might distract themselves with work or hobbies or avoid certain places or people.
Alternatively, some people with PTSD cope by trying not to feel anything at all. Emotional numbing is common. But everyone experiences PTSD differently, so you may not experience this symptom.
Grief and numbness often go hand in hand. A lot of the time, it allows us to process the loss of a loved one at a pace that we can manage. Or we might not have come to terms with the fact that they’re truly gone.
Numbness or denial is a natural part of the bereavement process. For some it can be helpful, but, for others, it can also be a distressing experience.
You might expect to be overcome with emotions, so when you feel ‘nothing’ you might think that you’re defective or broken somehow.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Your mind is just giving you the time you need to process your grief at a pace that works for you.
The good news is that, sooner or later you’ll probably start to move past the numbness. As you move onto a new stage of grief, you may experience a whole host of different emotions including anger, sadness and guilt. Everyone is different though and grief varies from person to person. That being said, if you’ve been feeling ‘numb’ or ‘emotionless’ for a while now, it’s worth speaking to your GP or a therapist.
Many people who misuse drugs or alcohol want to dull painful or complicated emotions. But although it offers temporary relief, it doesn’t solve the problem at hand. In fact, in the long-run it could do more harm than good and lead to substance abuse.
Avoiding your emotions
If you feel emotionless, there’s not always a mental health condition to blame: it might simply be that you don’t know how to express your feelings.
You might feel like you need to bottle up your emotions and put on a brave face for your friends and family. Maybe your parents never shared their emotions or criticised you for crying. Or perhaps you can’t quite put your finger on what emotions you’re experiencing.
If you want to feel your feelings once more, it’s all about working on your emotional awareness.
Feeling emotionless? What to do if you feel numb
Identify why you feel numb
How and when you move past your numbness will depend on what caused it in the first place.
For instance, if you feel numb because of substance abuse, you might not be able to experience the breadth of your emotions until you’re sober. If it’s down to grief, you may need to process your loss. Whereas if you can’t quite work out what you’re feeling, it might be time to improve your emotional awareness.
The tendency to suppress our emotions has, sadly, become common practice. But the truth is that all emotions need to be felt and processed. Even if it seems scary at first, sit with your emotions and allow them to be. You’ll soon realise that they drift away in their own time.
Our mind and our bodies are deeply interconnected.
So it’s no surprise that when we feel disconnected from our emotions, we may feel disconnected from our bodies too.
Exercise is probably the last thing on your mind when you’re feeling numb and emotionless but try to be active once a day. Even if it’s just a gentle walk, it might do you the world of good.
Write down what you’re feeling
Journaling can be a great catharsis, especially if you struggle to express your feelings. That’s because it’s a safe space where you can vent your raw emotions without judgement or shame.
Some days your thoughts might flow easily onto the page. Other days it might be a struggle. But stick with it. Because it might help you unpick some complicated feelings.
For people who feel chronically numb, life can be an out-of-body experience. You might even feel dissociated or disconnected from the outside world — and this is where grounding exercises like the ‘54321 game’ can be a gamechanger.
Here’s how it works:
- Describe 5 things you can see in the room.
- Name 4 things you can feel (e.g. “my feet on the carpet”)
- Name 3 things you can hear (e.g. “the cars driving by my window”)
- Name 2 things you can smell
- Name 1 thing good about yourself
Hopefully this technique will help you focus on your surroundings so you can be present in the here and now.
Go to therapy
All emotions serve a purpose. Not only do they give us feedback that keeps us safe, but they can also motivate us to take action and make decisions. For that reason, if you’ve been feeling emotionless for a while now it’s crucial that you seek help from a GP or a therapist.
Your doctor can adjust or change your medication if that’s where your numbness stems from. Whereas therapy may equip you with the tools you need to unpack your emotions in a safe space.
The reality is emotional numbness is often a defensive mechanism. It’s a way that we learned to protect ourselves from emotional and physical pain.
But there are more better ways we can learn to cope — and this is where a therapist can be a big help. In therapy, you’ll identify the underlying cause of your distress or trauma, and come up with better ways to cope with taxing experiences and emotions.
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for instance, you’ll learn how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes are all interconnected. With this know-how, you can learn how to influence your feelings towards a situation and how to express your emotions more openly.
Meanwhile, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy takes a mindfulness-based approach. It asks us to get in touch with our emotions by being present in the here and now.
Feeling emotionless can often be a symptom of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic disorder so it’s not something to dismiss or downplay.
In these cases, seeking the help of a professional is crucial. So remember you don’t have to work through this alone.