Emotional detachment is an inability or unwillingness to connect with other people on an emotional level. It may help protect some people from unwanted drama, anxiety, or stress.
For others, detachment isn’t always voluntary. Instead, it’s the result of events that make the person unable to be open and honest about their emotions.
Below you’ll read about the different types of emotional detachment and learn when it’s a good thing and when it might be worrisome.
Emotional detachment describes when you or others disengage or disconnect from other people’s emotions. It may stem from an unwillingness or an inability to connect with others.
There are two general types. In some cases, you may develop emotional detachment as a response to a difficult or stressful situation. In other cases, it may result from an underlying psychological condition.
Emotional detachment can be helpful if you use it purposefully, such as by setting boundaries with certain people or groups. Boundaries can help you maintain a healthy distance from people who demand much of your emotional attention.
But emotional detachment can also be harmful when you can’t control it. You may feel “numbed” or “muted.” This is known as emotional blunting, and it’s typically a symptom or issue that you should consider working with a mental health professional to address.
People who are emotionally detached or removed may experience symptoms such as:
- difficulty creating or maintaining personal relationships
- a lack of attention, or appearing preoccupied when around others
- difficulty being loving or affectionate with a family member
- avoiding people, activities, or places because they’re associated with past trauma
- reduced ability to express emotion
- difficulty empathizing with another person’s feelings
- not easily sharing emotions or feelings
- difficulty committing to another person or a relationship
- not making another person a priority when they should be
Emotional detachment can slowly build over time, or it may occur more rapidly in response to an acute situation. Though everyone is different, some signs and symptoms to watch for include:
- inability to feel emotions or feeling empty
- losing interest in enjoyable activities
- becoming less involved in relationships
- showing little or no empathy toward others
- being harsh or unkind to others
If you suspect you may be developing emotional detachment, you should consider talking with your doctor. They can help identify your symptoms and recommend potential treatment options.
Emotional detachment may develop due to a variety of potential causes, which can include:
- constant exposure to unpleasant news
- traumatic experience
- side effects of certain medications
- conditioning as a child due to parental or cultural expectations
Emotional detachment may be voluntary. Some people can choose to remain emotionally removed from a person or situation.
Other times, emotional detachment results from trauma, abuse, or a previous encounter. In these cases, previous events may make it difficult to be open and honest with a friend, loved one, or significant other.
Some people choose to proactively remove themselves from an emotional situation.
This might be an option if you have a family member or a colleague that you know upsets you greatly. You can choose not to engage with the person or persons. This will help you remain cool and keep calm when dealing with them.
In situations like this, emotional detachment is a bit like a protective measure. It helps you prepare for situations that may trigger a negative emotional response.
As a result of abuse
Sometimes, emotional detachment may result from traumatic events, such as childhood abuse or neglect. Children who live through abuse or neglect may develop emotional detachment as a means of survival.
Children require a lot of emotional connection from their parents or caregivers. If it’s not forthcoming, the children may stop expecting it.
When this happens, they may begin to turn off their emotional receptors, as in the case of reactive attachment disorder (RAD). RAD is a condition in which children cannot form bonds with their parents or caregivers.
That can lead to depressed mood, inability to show or share emotions, and behavior problems.
Emotional detachment or “numbing” is frequently a symptom of other conditions. You may feel distant from your emotions at times if you have:
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a type of antidepressant. Some people who take this type of drug may experience emotional blunting or a switched-off emotional center, particularly at higher doses.
This period of emotional detachment may last as long as you take these medications. Doctors can help you find another alternative or help to find the right dosage if the medication affects you in this way.
Emotional detachment isn’t an official condition like bipolar disorder or depression. Instead, it’s often considered one element of a larger medical condition.
Emotional detachment could also be the result of acute trauma or abuse.
A healthcare professional may be able to see when you’re not emotionally available to others. They may also talk with you, a family member, or a significant other about your behaviors.
Understanding how you feel and act can help a provider recognize a pattern that could suggest this emotional issue.
Autism and emotional detachment
Contrary to popular belief, people living with Autism spectrum disorder are not necessarily cut off from their emotions or the emotions of others.
Treatment for emotional detachment depends on the reason it’s occurring.
If your healthcare professional believes you’re experiencing problems with emotional attachment because of another condition, they may suggest treating that first.
These conditions might include depression, PTSD, or borderline personality disorder. Medication and therapy are often helpful for these conditions.
If the emotional detachment symptoms result from trauma, your doctor may recommend psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy. This treatment can help you learn to overcome the impacts of the abuse. You may also learn new ways to process experiences and anxieties that previously upset you and led to emotional detachment.
For some people, however, emotional distance isn’t problematic. In that case, you may not need to seek any treatment.
However, if problems with feeling or expressing emotions have caused issues in your personal life, you may want to seek out treatment or other support.
A therapist or other mental health provider can provide treatment, though you may find that talking first to your primary care provider can help connect you with those who can help.
For some people, emotional detachment is a way of coping with overwhelming people or activities. You choose when to be involved and when to step away.
In other cases, however, numbing yourself to emotions and feelings may not be healthy. Indeed, frequently “turning off” your emotions may lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as an inability to show empathy or a fear of commitment.
Emotional detachment occurs when people willingly or unwillingly turn off their connection with their emotions. This may be intentional, such as a defensive mechanism on emotionally draining people, or unintentional due to an underlying condition or medication side effect.
If you have difficulty processing emotions or you live with someone who does, you may want to consider seeking help from a mental health provider. They can offer support and treatment to help you understand how you process emotions and respond to others and activities.