Have you ever felt as though you are moving through your life on autopilot? Nothing seems to make you feel any particular way? You feel like you’re just passively existing? You feel empty and detached from yourself and your surroundings? If you answered yes to these questions, then you are probably experiencing emotional numbness.
Emotional numbness means that you feel disconnected from your emotions and your inner world. You may have a hard time labelling what you are feeling, or you may feel nothing at all, and this can be a really difficult, confusing, and isolating experience. However, know that you are not alone in feeling this way.
Emotional numbness is most commonly seen in people who experience depression or depressive episodes; however, it can also occur in people with various mental health challenges such as trauma, anxiety, or general stress.
What is interesting about emotional numbness is that it can actually come about from having a consistent and relentless surplus of difficult or painful emotions happening all at the same time that simply become too overpowering for our mind and bodies to handle, leading to emotional burnout. Emotional burnout can turn into emotional numbness if the burnout persists and the emotions are not addressed and processed early on. This surplus of emotions could be the result of a traumatic experience, or simply feeling overwhelmed. As such, in response, our emotional processing system essentially shuts down in an effort to help us cope, and acts as a protective mechanism, shielding us from the intensity of our emotional pain. At this point, we might begin to feel like we are just drifting through life, or as if we are out of touch with ourselves and our surroundings. In psychological terms, this is called derealization and depersonalization.
Derealization and depersonalization are forms of dissociation. Derealization is a mental state in which your surroundings, including objects and people, might feel surreal to you. This may also include feeling like you are in a dream-like state. Depersonalization, on the other hand, can make you feel as though you are having an out-of-body experience where you are watching yourself live your life from outside of your body. Your mind and body may feel separate from each other.
If you are reading this post and feel like you connect with the above information or know someone who may be feeling this way, do not panic. There are things you can do, and signs to look out for to help you understand your situation better, and reconnect with your emotions.
Here are some signs to look out for that indicate you may be experiencing emotional numbness:
1. You are unable to experience both positive emotions, like happiness or joy, and negative emotions, like sadness or fear
2. You gain zero pleasure from any activities you used to take part in, and struggle to feel motivated
3. You frequently feel fatigued, and may not be receiving signals that our bodies typically receive, such as hunger or thirst signals
4. The memories of your life start to feel like somebody else’s stories
5. You’ve lost touch with your own interests, passions, and dreams
6. You constantly feel bored but don’t have the energy or can’t think of anything to do to change it
7. You have lost interest in interacting with others and feel detached from family and friends
If you feel like these warning signs ring true, there are several things you can do!
1. Look through an old photo album or pictures on your phone.
Try to notice if anything comes up for you emotionally. This could be anything from feeling nostalgic or wistful, to noticing yourself smiling as you reminisce. Try to remember how you felt in those moments when the pictures were being taken. Additionally, you can try to take pictures of places or objects you encounter throughout your day. They may not prompt any feelings right off the bat, but over time if this is done consistently, you may be able to see a pattern or theme developing that could be tied back to your emotions and how you are feeling. In doing this consistently, you can begin to reactivate your emotions and reduce derealization and depersonalization.
2. Find songs that bring back emotions you had previous to experiencing emotional numbness, and preferably songs that are emotionally charged.
These songs could evoke happy emotions, or sadder, deeper emotions. It may even be helpful to create specific playlists for a particular mood or emotion. When you are listening to the music, try to notice if anything changes or feels different in your body. Many people don’t know this, but emotions can actually live inside our bodies, so if you feel something happening as you are listening to your music, this is a good sign that you are being present and starting to re-establish your mind-body connection.
3. Google and download an emotions/feelings wheel.
If you find yourself struggling to identify or label what you are feeling, a feelings or emotions wheel may be helpful. There are many free templates that can be found online through a quick google search. The inner circle of the feelings wheel typically contains primary emotions, which are the emotions that are direct first reactions to experiences and events. The most common primary emotions are sadness, anger, happiness, and fear, and they are usually easy to identify and understand because they are so strong and “in your face”. The outer circles of the feelings wheel typically contains secondary emotions, which are the emotions that are essentially subconscious or below the surface of our primary emotions, and act as reactions to our primary emotions. As such, secondary emotions are much more complex, and they are typically learned emotions that we get from our parents or caregivers as we are growing up. Secondary emotions can include guilt, shame, jealousy, irritation, etc. In taking time to have a look at a feelings wheel, you may be able to develop a greater understanding of, and identify, what primary and secondary emotions may be at play in your life.
4. Attend therapy or a peer support group.
If you are becoming seriously concerned about your mental state and other efforts to stop feeling numb have not succeeded, consider attending therapy and/or a peer support group. In a peer support group setting, hearing other people talking about their emotions may help to provide greater perspective on your situation, and may help you learn how to better identify and label your feelings. Not to mention, being able to talk freely about how you are feeling with others who can understand what you are going through can provide enough necessary social support to give you a push in the right direction to start feeling like yourself again. This can also be said for one-on-one therapy, if you prefer to not be in a group setting. In therapy, you can have the undivided attention of your therapist, who will create a safe and nonjudgmental space for you to begin exploring deep-seeded emotions that may be hidden beneath the surface and have been neglected for some time. Your therapist may challenge you slightly to open up and let your emotions in, instead of continuing to push them down. Once you start to feel more comfortable exploring and discussing how you feel, you may start to feel more grounded and connected to yourself again.
Again, while it may be difficult and defeating to experience emotional numbness, it is important to remember that you are not alone, and that you do not need to feel this way forever. Remind yourself that emotions are what make us human, and vulnerability is a super power. Remember that emotions can sometimes FEEL scary, but they are not actually dangerous, and the more you gently and compassionately push yourself to be curious and reflect about your experiences, the more this can ring true. Try not to feel too discouraged: you have felt things before, and you can surely feel them again.