With all its ups and downs, experiencing emotion is a normal part of life. Everyone has a different experience of emotions. Some people feel more strongly than others, while other people may have long-term or temporary difficulty feeling a full range of emotion.
That difficulty is sometimes referred to as emotional blunting. Depending on the cause, emotional blunting can last anywhere from a few minutes, up to months or even years.
There are various reasons a person might experience emotional blunting, and what’s causing it will determine how it’s treated. Read on to learn more about how emotional blunting feels, what causes it, and what treatments are available.
Emotional blunting is a term sometimes used to describe a person’s limited emotional reactivity. They may not even be experiencing any emotions to feel, and people with emotional blunting may report feeling an unpleasant numbness instead of emotions.
There are many reasons a person might experience emotional blunting. This can include psychiatric prescriptions, substance use, and having certain mental health disorders.
The defining symptom of emotional blunting is a numbing of emotional experiences. This includes how a person feels internally.
Emotional blunting can be accompanied by blunted affect. It might also be defined by an inability to express emotions in their face, behaviors, and other forms of communication.
The blunted affect that comes with emotional blunting is especially common among people with moderate to severe depression. It can also appear alongside schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When people display emotions in a way most other people see as limited, experts sometimes refer to this as “flat affect.”
Emotional blunting may be associated with the following symptoms:
- inability to feel happiness and sadness
- loss of sex drive
- feeling disconnected from mind and/or body
- difficulty speaking
- lack of motivation
- difficulty socializing, maintaining and forming relationships
- difficulty feeling love or affection toward oneself or others
- indifference, even to activities or causes a person once found important
- difficulty concentrating
- a compulsion toward, or active engagement in, reckless behavior or self-harm (in order to feel something)
Emotional blunting isn’t considered a mental health condition. Instead, it’s considered a symptom of an underlying physical or mental cause.
If you’re experiencing emotional blunting, you should schedule an appointment with a mental healthcare professional. They’ll screen your symptoms and review your mental health history to better understand your unique circumstances.
As mentioned previously, emotional blunting is a symptom. There are a variety of possible causes. These include:
- Antidepressant medication.
Researchsuggests that some people who take antidepressant medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) experience a reduction in their ability to experience emotions.
- Alexithymia. A little-understood mental health disorder, alexithymia is marked by a difficulty in recognizing emotions.
- Schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia often experience “negative” symptoms that make them reduce or lose their ability to function normally, including their ability to experience emotion.
- Major depressive disorder. Depression (and the medications used to treat it) can cause feelings of emptiness and make it hard to feel either positive or negative emotions.
- Alcohol use disorder. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that can have a strong effect on a person’s mood. For some people who live with alcohol use disorder, alcohol can create feelings of numbness.
- Drug use. For some people living with substance use disorders, drugs like cannabis or opiates like heroin can cause emotional blunting. This is because some drugs, like alcohol, can depress the central nervous system.
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD is a personality disorder marked by intense changes in mood. However, in moments of severe stress, people with this disorder sometimes experience dissociation, emotional numbness, or detachment from their mind and body.
- PTSD. People with PTSD or complex PTSD (CPTSD) also may experience dissociation while having trauma flashbacks or facing triggering situations.
It seems that some people are more likely to experience emotional blunting than others. Common risk factors for developing emotional blunting include:
- schizophrenia diagnosis
- BPD diagnosis
- PTSD or CPTSD diagnosis
- current diagnosis or past history of depression or anxiety
- taking certain medications, such as antidepressants
- history of drug or alcohol use
Finding care for emotional blunting
If you’re experiencing emotional blunting and looking for ways to cope, you should know that there’s help out there:
- The first step is to schedule an appointment with a licensed mental healthcare professional. They’ll help devise a treatment plan that best suits you.
- If you’re not sure how to get in touch with a mental healthcare provider in your area, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357. This free hotline is a private information service, available 24/7 in English and Spanish. It can help refer people and families to local treatment centers, support groups, and community support organizations.
There are two sides to treatment for emotional blunting. One is going to involve working with a mental health professional, and the other is what you can do to help manage it on your own.
How can a professional help you?
Emotional blunting is best treated by addressing the underlying cause or causes. That’s why it’s important to see a mental healthcare professional if you’re experiencing emotional blunting.
Some potential treatment options a mental healthcare professional might recommend include:
- Psychotherapy (talk therapy). This can address mental health conditions that can cause emotional blunting, such as BPD, PTSD, or depression.
- Dose or medication adjustment. This is for people whose emotional blunting appears to be caused by psychiatric or other prescription medicines.
What can you do about it?
While emotional blunting and its causes should be treated by a licensed mental healthcare professional, there’s plenty that you can do on your own to help find relief from emotional blunting.
- When you feel numb or empty, safely stimulate one or more of your senses. This may include cuddling with a stuffed animal, taking a warm bath or shower, gripping a piece of ice, or eating spicy or strong-flavored food.
- Try getting back into activities that you once enjoyed. Even if you don’t feel the same amount of happiness that these activities used to fill you with, they can still provide a boost in mood and open up your emotional range.
- Join a support group and create a personal support system to help cope with any diagnosed mental disorders.
- Join a support group or program to help address substance use.
Emotional blunting is an unpleasant symptom with various possible causes. Treating the underlying causes of emotional blunting may help reduce its severity and frequency in your daily life.
It might take some time for you to see the effects of treatment. Changing medication doses, starting a substance use program, or beginning talk therapy, for example, won’t make emotional blunting disappear overnight. But they’re a start on the road to a fulfilling life.
Emotional blunting is a symptom of various mental health disorders. It can also be caused by certain medications, as well as substance use disorders. But there’s plenty of help available for people seeking treatment.
With the right treatment and a little time, it’s possible to keep emotional blunting at bay. This can help you get back to experiencing life with a fuller range of emotions.