Sometimes our life can be stripped of all emotions. We sleepwalk through existence like a zombie, devoid of feelings. Read on to find out what causes this emotional numbness and how we can get our emotions back once again.
Are you unable to feel any emotion? Does your life feel devoid of any color? No love, no sadness, a life devoid of any ups and downs? If you’re one of the small minority of the human population who experiences emotional numbing, then you know what I’m talking about here.
Emotional numbing is real. There are millions of people for whom their life feels less passionate than others. Life feels lifeless to someone who experiences emotional numbing.
No, it’s not because they are depressed. Emotional numbing is not the same as depression, although someone can experience both. Emotional numbing is when a person feels blank inside. It’s as if they are stripped of any emotions like joy, love, happiness, and sometimes even sadness. People in this state can feel like they’ve flatlined. It’s as if they are a ghost sleepwalking through much of life without the ability to feel any emotions. They are unable to experience life’s highs and lows.
What’s going on here? And if you are someone who is affected by this, what can you do? Let’s try to get some answers below.
Major Cause of Emotional Numbing
Human beings are emotional creatures. Emotions let us know how we’re feeling at the moment. Emotions are indicators of how we’re doing in life. Without these indicators, we can feel lost.
While the above may be true, feelings and emotions can also shake us up. They may overwhelm and prevent us from accomplishing our most important tasks. For example, everyone has some fear of getting into an accident while driving. But what if we felt overpowered by this fear? No one would be driving anywhere, and the world would come to a grinding halt.
Similarly, if someone was feeling ecstatic all the time, they may feel unhinged to the point of hurting themselves or the people around them.
So, while experiencing emotions is part of a healthy life, when we experience them intensely, our lives can become dysfunctional.
This is where the experience of trauma becomes relevant. Some examples of trauma are the death of a close family member or friend, being in a war, going through a painful breakup or divorce, experiencing abuse, being neglected as a child, sudden onset of a major illness, being in an accident, etc. Sometimes, trauma can also stem from experiencing consistent stress for a while without a way to offset that stress.
Trauma occurs in a state of heightened emotions. Imagine you are going through something traumatic. When this happens, your emotions can reach new peaks. Typically, your “negative” emotions like panic, terror, sadness, anger, bewilderment, and helplessness spike during this time.
When such emotions are running high, we may be impaired from doing vital tasks. For example, if you’re being chased by a wild animal, the sheer panic that you experience may be detrimental to your survival. Instead of being frozen in fear, you need to get yourself to safety quickly. You cannot let your emotions endanger your survival.
During such traumatic times, our nervous system shuts down any emotional processing. The result of this shutdown is the loss of our ability to feel any emotion. By doing this, the nervous system ensures that we are not overwhelmed by our emotions. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and shut down, we can now do something to get out of the situation that put us in that traumatic state.
At this point, you may ask, “Ok, I understand why we may not want to be overwhelmed by fear or sadness, but why do we feel cut off from positive emotions as well?” This is a valid question. People who experience emotional numbing seem to be mostly concerned with their inability to feel positive emotions, such as love, joy, amusement, hope, etc.
When the emotional processing of the person shuts down as a response to trauma, then it doesn’t matter what sort of emotion it is. Your ability to experience any emotion, positive or negative, can be impaired.
Our primitive brain nervous system complex can’t distinguish between positive and negative emotions. It cannot selectively block out overwhelming negative emotions while allowing you to experience positive ones. The simplest response to trauma is to shut down all emotional experiences so that we can survive the moment.
What’s unfortunate is that, even after the traumatic event has passed, we can continue to live in this emotionally numb state for a long time. We become frozen as if we’re living through that trauma every single day.
Working Through Trauma
So, what can be done if you’ve found yourself to be in this state? For most people who have become emotionally numb through any kind of trauma, time can be a great healer. As long as they don’t keep experiencing traumatic situations, the nervous system becomes unfrozen over time. They will regain their ability to feel emotions slowly.
While others, who have significant trauma in their lives, may have to process that trauma to be able to feel vibrant once again. Processing of trauma involves working with trauma therapists who can safely guide you to discharge the “trapped energy” from within you. Think of the trauma-affected individual as a wound-up slinky. It’s always in a state of agitation because it has all that energy trapped in it. When the slinky is let go, it releases all that energy and can relax again. This is a metaphorical way of describing the mechanism of trauma processing.
In most cases, what might happen is that people might first regain their ability to feel the so-called negative emotions. They may first experience sadness, anger, panic, etc. before experiencing positive ones. As they discharge and let go of their darker emotions first, they pave the way to experiencing lighter emotions afterward.
The Depersonalization Connection
Trauma is not the only way someone can experience emotional numbing. You can become emotionally numb while undergoing depersonalization-derealization disorder as well.
Depersonalization is where a person feels dissociated and feels disconnected from themselves. Their surroundings can also appear unreal to them and may make them feel like life is dreamy (sometimes called derealization.)
Several people who have taken my depersonalization recovery course have written to me asking me why they feel cut off from their emotions. They want to know what can be done to restore normalcy.
While trauma can be found in the history of a person who is experiencing depersonalization-derealization disorder, one can also experience it without a traumatic history. What’s happening here is that depersonalization (DP), derealization (DR), or sometimes even intense anxiety itself can be overwhelming to the point that it requires an emotional shutdown.
People can become overwhelmed by how bizarre their experience of DP/DR can be. It’s one of the most confusing illnesses. There is a lack of awareness of DP/DR even among the medical community.
Because of all this confusion and lack of support, sufferers of DP/DR might not be able to function normally. So, their nervous system shifts into “survival mode.” It cuts off the emotional centers, preventing a shutdown due to overwhelming fear or confusion that one can feel from DP/DR.
For our primitive brain and nervous system, survival is the #1 goal. It’s better for you to be in a zombie-like state, without any emotions, than to experience intense emotions and put yourself in danger.
This is why several people who experience depersonalization, derealization, and intense anxiety can sometimes just feel numb. Not only do they feel emotionally numb, but their mind can also be blank. They might experience what’s known as blank mind syndrome.
How to Feel Emotions Once Again
If you’re someone going through emotional numbing, let me tell you, I’m very familiar with this condition. Not a week goes by without someone emailing me and telling me how they’re unable to feel love for their partner or how they’re not able to connect with their newborn baby. Some folks may not even be able to feel sad or release their suffering through crying. They just feel blank and empty inside. If you feel that you’re currently going through this, worry not for there is hope, even though you may currently feel hopeless.
First of all, don’t mistake your lack of emotions as representing what is happening to you in reality. You may not feel love for your partner currently, but that doesn’t mean that the love is lost. Even if you’re unable to feel connected with your newborn, it doesn’t mean that the connection is gone.
Try to think of it this way. Let’s say a person develops cataract or any illness affecting their vision. They may not be able to see the world clearly. But we know that nothing is wrong with the world. It’s clear as it has always been. The external reality remains unharmed by this person’s impaired vision.
Similarly, right now, your ability to perceive emotions is disrupted. That doesn’t mean there’s no love or connection between you and your friends and family. That connection very much still exists. You’re just unable to feel it right now.
But don’t worry, it won’t always be like this. Many people regain their ability to feel emotions in the future. Whether it’s simply by allowing their body and mind to heal naturally over time, or by undergoing specialized trauma therapy, people can start feeling emotions again.
As mentioned before, sometimes your negative emotions are the first ones to come back. You may suddenly feel sad about your condition. You may feel angry that you’ve been stuck with depersonalization for some time while your friends are enjoying their lives. Just notice that you are now feeling emotional. All of this still counts as progress.
Many might not want to experience sadness or despair. You may have been a person who was always happy and now after months of emotional numbness, you might start feeling gloomy. Just let yourself feel these emotions without any judgment. It’s your body and brain’s way of working through the freeze response. The numbness may first give way to hopelessness and despair before unfurling into happiness and joy. Don’t just fixate on the lack of positive emotions. Feeling any emotion is progress.
Also, if you’re going through depersonalization and feeling emotionally numb, understand that you can sometimes feel depressed. Learn how to handle your depression along with the depersonalization.
If you feel stuck in an emotionally numb state, there are other exercises you can do as well. You can try to journal for a few minutes every day. Journaling is a simple practice with huge benefits. Write down how you’re feeling on a piece of paper or in a note-taking app on your phone. Even if you don’t feel anything, write that down. Make this a daily habit.
Every day, try to dig in a bit more. Can you detect a tinge of sadness you feel? Write it down. Can you notice some gratitude you are feeling because you made it through another challenging day? Write that down as well. Journal your thoughts and try to notice the subtle emotions that you can feel. Sometimes, the emotions may be present deep down in a muted way that you may have to focus deeply on to be able to recognize them.
Watching movies that you once enjoyed can be helpful, too. Are there any films or books that tingle your emotions? Were there books that made you feel sad or emotional in any way? Re-read those books or re-watch movies that made you feel emotional in the past.
In doing so, you may feel that your emotions still feel muted. Don’t let this bother you. Instead, try to get caught up in the story of the book or the film. Keep repeating this process. Try this exercise once or twice a week. By doing this over and over, you’ll notice your emotions coming back subtly.
Understand that your emotions will not be back overnight. It’s a slow process. Your body needs time to heal. You need to be patient. You cannot be demanding. If you’re getting frustrated in this journey, notice that being frustrated or angry is an emotion, too. As mentioned before, sometimes you’ve got to journey through sadness, despair, and hopelessness to get to hope, love, and joy again.
Emotional numbing is a valid response to trauma, depersonalization, or anything overwhelming to us. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s not perfect as this coping mechanism can actually make us feel like we’ve been put in a cage. But remember, this is not a permanent prison sentence. You can and will be able to feel your emotions once again. Use the practices outlined above. Don’t forget to leave a comment and let me know what your story is.
Image Credits: Dalle-2 and Pixabay