Even as we don’t like pain, it is a reminder that we are alive and have a steady pulse. Worse than heartbreak or rage can be the sensation of numbness, when you lose access to your feelings and can’t feel the sadness of an important loss or the aggravations that used to make you scream. Emotional numbness is a common, yet not talked about, symptom of depression.
In an informational video, Will This Numbness Go Away?, J. Raymond DePaulo, Jr., M.D., co-director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, describes emotional numbness and helps people to distinguish between the numbness caused by depression and that from medication side-effects. He also assures anyone experiencing it, that it WILL go away.
I don’t feel anything.
“Numbness is not the most talked about experience or the most prominent experience of a depressed patient,” DePaulo says, “but there is a small group of patients for whom their first concern is that they don’t feel anything.”
Writer Phil Eli could be included in that group. He wasn’t prepared for the way his depression stole his sex drive and attention span. Nor was he ready for the overwhelming fatigue that made it difficult for him to stay on task. However, he was most surprised by his inability to feel anything. In his piece “Sometimes Depression Means Not Feeling Anything at All” he writes:
Nothing about hearing the word “depression” prepared me for having a moment of eye contact with my two-year-old niece that I knew ought to melt my heart—but didn’t. Or for sitting at a funeral for a friend, surrounded by sobs and sniffles, and wondering, with a mix of guilt and alarm, why I wasn’t feeling more.
During my recent depression spell, I experienced this kind of numbness for weeks. Political news that would have previously enraged me left me cold. Music had little effect beyond stirring memories of how it used to make me feel. Jokes were unfunny. Books were uninteresting. Food was unappetizing. I felt, as Phillip Lopate wrote in his uncannily accurate poem “Numbness,” “precisely nothing.”
Is it my medication?
To further confuse matters, numbness can also be a side-effect of certain medications.
“It is true that there are medications and a particular group of antidepressants that can cause a very similar numbness,” explains DePaulo. “It’s important to distinguish that and know if it’s a side effect of medication. The Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors at higher doses can cause this.”
A 2015 study published in the journal Sociology found that emotional numbness was among the dominating experiences of antidepressant use among young adults, and a 2014 study published in the journal Elsevier cited that 60 percent of the participants who had taken antidepressants within the past five years experienced some emotional numbness.
That said, it can be tempting for people to assign blame on the medication when it is due to the depression, itself, especially in the initial weeks and months of treatment.
Will it go away?
Regardless of the cause, people want to know if and when numbness will go away. DePaulo asserts, “If the treatment is sufficiently helpful, it will go away.” However, he explains that it may not be the first thing to improve. The progression of recovery usually starts with a person looking better to other people and talking more and being response. “They may still feel awful on the inside,” he explains, “but usually those feelings go away later in the course of treatment.”
And if the numbing is caused by a medication? “We have to figure that out,” says DePaulo. “We may try reducing the dose of medication — if the medication seems to be otherwise working — or may attempt to change medications.”
Either way, though, DePaulo says, it should go away. “That is our job.”
The good-bad news is that ALL your feelings will return.