Understanding Emotional Numbness

Medically reviewed by Suzanne Falck, MD on May 23, 2017Written by Ana Gotter on May 23, 2017

Overview

Feeling emotionally numb, or a general lack of emotion, can be a symptom of several different medical conditions or a side effect of some medications. It can cause a sense of isolation or emotional disconnect from the rest of the world. The numbness can be unbearable for many people who experience it.

Find out what it’s like, why it happens, and how to treat and prevent it.

What does emotional numbness feel like?

Emotional numbness can be difficult to imagine if you haven’t experienced it yourself. Some people describe it as feeling emptiness or despondency, while others report feeling isolated. Some feel as though they have no future or that there is no hope for the numbness to ever fade.

“Often I feel invisible, like I’m a ghost. I watch my family engaging with each other, but feel like there’s an invisible barrier that keeps me from joining them,” describes Amy H., who has experienced emotional numbness from depression. “I’m like a submarine drifting undetected, picking up on other people’s emotions like sonar. However, if you were to ask me what my own feelings are, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.”

Rebecca C.* has a similar experience with numbness caused by depression. “The world around me often seems slightly superficial, [like] I am simply going through the motions and can’t connect to my environment,” she explains. “It makes me feel as if there were analogue TV static in my brain. I am unable to communicate or think deeply.”

Some people describe the emotional numbness as feeling unfocused or ungrounded. “It basically feels like when you zone out before you go to sleep,” Amanda D. said. “Feels like being unfocused. And sometimes, especially right when you are going through it, it’s really hard to understand how the world keeps moving when it should’ve stopped.”

*Some names have been changed at the request of interviewees.

What causes emotional numbness?

There are a number of different things that can cause emotional numbness. Depression and anxiety are two of the most common causes. Severe levels of acute elevated stress or nervousness can also trigger feelings of emotional numbness. Post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be tied to depression and anxiety, can cause you to feel numb, too.

Some medications can also cause numbness. The most common culprits are medications used to treat anxiety and depression. These medications may affect how the brain processes mood and emotion.

There are several ways that emotional numbness can occur. Stress hormones can flood your systems and cause different reactions within the body that can lead to emotional numbness. For example, stress hormones can affect the limbic system. The limbic system is located near the center of your brain and is responsible for your emotions. Stress hormones can also affect other hormones in your body, which in turn can affect your mood. Both effects can cause you to feel numb.

In some cases, your body can become so stressed that you become overtaxed emotionally and physically fatigued. That depletion of both emotional and physical energy can create emotional numbness.

How to treat emotional numbness

Despite how it may feel, emotional numbness is not permanent. Treatment is available to provide both immediate relief and long-term remission.

The first step in treating emotional numbness is to identify and treat the underlying cause. Your doctor can help with this, though they may refer you to a therapist or psychiatrist. You’ll be asked what medications you take and what other symptoms you have. If your doctor thinks one of your medications is to blame, they may substitute it with something else.

Immediate relief options

To start getting more immediate relief from emotional numbness, you can try several treatment options.

Make an appointment with a psychiatrist: A psychiatrist can switch up your medications or prescribe you new medication. They can also offer coping techniques to help you regain your emotional feeling again. The medications they prescribe you may be fast-acting and can provide fast relief. While antidepressants typically take about six weeks to start working, the doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medication for you to take while the other drug builds in your system.

Rely on your support system: Even if you’re having trouble connecting, reach out to the people who love you. They may be able to help you connect, and you may find relief in telling them what you’re experiencing.

Exercise: When you’re feeling numb, the last thing you may want to do is get up and moving, but it’s one of the best things you can do. Running, swimming, yoga, and kickboxing classes are all great for stress relief, but even just taking a walk around the neighborhood can help flood your brain with endorphins. To get the best results, exercise daily.

Get plenty of sleep: If you can get at least eight hours of good quality sleep every night, it could help improve your mood quickly.

Learn 10 self-care strategies to help manage depression »

Long-term care

For long-term methods treatment and prevention of emotional numbness, follow these tactics:

Eat a well-balanced, healthy diet: By eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods, you fuel your body to work at its best. This includes its mood regulation and improvement.

Minimize stress: Stress is a huge contributing factor to emotional numbness. Minimizing the stress you experience or improving how you manage it can positively impact your body, reduce stress hormones, and help you regain emotional feeling. Reduce the stressors in your life, and practice stress-busting techniques like meditation or mindfulness to better manage the stress that you can’t get rid of.

Learn to identify and express emotions: For those who have been emotionally numb for an extended time, it can be difficult to identify or process different emotions. A therapist can help with this. Make an appointment with a professional in your area who can help you tap into your emotions.

Outlook

If you’re experiencing emotional numbness, know that no matter how you feel, you aren’t alone, and it won’t last forever. Reach out to the people you love and make an appointment with your doctor. They can help you bridge the gap and bring you one step closer to emotional feeling.

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