Why Can’t I Feel: Overcoming Emotional Numbness

What is emotional numbness?

Have you ever felt like you can’t make sense of the world around you? Or like you’re spending all of your time going through the motions of life, not actually living it? You might feel isolated, confused, forgetful, zoned out, tired, or empty inside.

Feeling this way is known as emotional numbness. When you feel emotionally numb, you may feel a temporary disconnection from your body, your emotions, and even the world around you. You might be going about your daily activities as normal, but you don’t feel any emotional connection to what you are doing.

People who feel the emotionally numb struggle with two main issues: processing their emotions and expressing their emotions. You have a hard time making sense of your feelings and showing them to others. When this happens, it can feel hard or even impossible to express or enjoy your positive feelings and experiences.

How can you recognize emotional numbness?

There are many symptoms of emotional numbness, including:

  • dissociation (the feeling of being disconnected from your body + thoughts)
  • derealization (feeling disconnected or detached from reality, or the world around you)
  • depersonalization (feeling like a stranger in your own life)
  • distorted sense of time
  • feelings of hopelessness, meaninglessness, or hollowness
  • impaired social functioning
  • often withdrawing from social settings; increased self-isolation
  • memory loss
  • distorted view of the world around you (objects appear flat, dim, lifeless, etc.; sounds seem louder or softer than they really are)
  • lack of enjoyment of your usual hobbies
  • exhaustion (emotionally & physically) regardless of sleep
  • feeling like an observer rather than a participant of your own life

Why do people feel emotional numbness?

Emotional numbness can start for a variety of reasons. These include emotional exhaustion, difficult emotional or traumatic experiences.  When you experience challenging emotions one right after the other your mind will naturally get overwhelmed. The distressing emotions eventually wear you down so much that your brain decides it can’t take anymore, and cause you to emotionally shut down.

When emotional numbness is caused by trauma, it can start as a way to cope. Closing yourself off to emotions is simply a way to protect yourself from the confusing, terrifying, dangerous, painful, or difficult circumstances around you. If you’ve experienced trauma in your life, and now feel emotionally numb, remember to be compassionate with yourself. Your brain was trying to protect and prevent you from feeling even more pain. Emotional numbness may have kept you safe so far, but it will steal your ability to live a meaningful life. Luckily, there are ways to cope with emotional numbness that can unlock your feelings again.

How to cope with emotional numbness:

If you recognize that you struggle with emotional numbness in your own life, there is still hope. Emotional numbness can be treated both through lifestyle changes that you can make on your own and getting help from a mental health professional.

Here are some helpful tips to get you connected:

Identify your feelings:  You may feel numb because you don’t know how to identify how you feel, or you frequently mask your feelings to meet the expectations of others. If you’re unsure how to identify your emotions, learn to check in with your body. Doing a mindfulness exercise like this one 3 minute breathing space can help you get in touch with your feelings. Notice if you’re purposely avoiding your emotions to protect yourself.  For example, if you’re going into a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, you might get ‘butterflies in your stomach’ or tension in your shoulders. Notice subtle changes in your thoughts and behaviors that might impact the way you feel.[7]

Move your body: Exercise releases chemicals in your brain that can reduce pain and stress, and even increase happiness. If you’re feeling emotional numbness or a general lack of positive feeling, incorporating a small bit of exercise to your regular routine can help. It doesn’t have to be extreme–no need to go out and join a gym, or push your body past what it can handle. Even small things like taking a walk around the block can help with this. Find time in your day when you can add a little movement. Can you walk on your lunch break? Can you walk around your home during commercial breaks while you watch TV? Can you start your day with an online yoga video?

Practice expressing your emotions: When we have no outlet for our feelings, they build up, overwhelm us, cause fatigue and then eventually our brain just shuts them all down. So instead of keeping them all to ourselves, it’s important to express them! Find a practice that helps you release your feelings when you need it. This can be journaling, painting, music, poetry, therapy, or anything else that lets you get your feelings out. Having a healthy release will help you get in touch with your emotions.

Prioritize sleep: A regular and restful sleep schedule can be an enormous help in managing our emotional health. If you find yourself going to bed at random times, or working when you know you should be sleeping, encourage yourself to build a regular routine around sleep. Set an alarm on your phone for an hour before you want to go to bed each night. That way you can start to adjust yourself to the routine. Start winding down and get ready for bed on a consistent schedule.

Lean on your support: Do you have a strong social support system? Make a list to remind yourself of the people you have who have offered you support in the past. Look it over when you need a reminder of your support system. And call them! Even just getting together with friends to vent can help release some of the tension & weight that come with extreme emotions.

Talk to a professional: Seek counseling to discuss how therapy can help you treat and cope with emotional numbness.

Emotional numbness can be confusing and hard to describe, but you don’t have to feel this way forever. With small steps and lots of practice, you will eventually feel the cloud start to lift.

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