Many people with depression feel an unbearable, knock-you-off-your-feet sadness, a debilitating despair. They feel like they’re drowning or suffocating. They feel a deep, all-over aching pain. Even breathing feels arduous.
But many do not.
In fact, many people with depression don’t feel anything except for numbness or emptiness.
Dean Parker’s clients often describe a “thick feeling throughout their body.” Some describe feeling like they’re “covered in lead.” Others describe being “in a fog.” Still, others say things like: “I have no emotions,” “Nothing gives me pleasure,” “Nothing gives me joy.”
Counseling psychologist Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, has worked with clients who initially feel a profound despair, which then turns into numbness. “Clients at times refer to this as an ‘emotional hangover’—having nothing left to give after having experienced such extreme emotional outpour.”
Other clients tell Saenz-Sierzega that they’re unable to feel anything at all. Which isn’t a neutral state of mind; her clients tell her it’s terrifying and isolating. They start to feel helpless and hopeless and become “fearful that they will never again be able to feel.” They “feel as though there is a wall or barrier between them and other people—it’s very lonely behind that wall,” she said.
Author Graeme Cowan, who struggled for five years with clinical depression, described having “terminal numbness.” “I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t think clearly. My head was in a black cloud and nothing in the outside world had any impact. The only relief that came was through sleep, and my biggest dread was waking up knowing that I had to get through another 15 hours before I could sleep again.”
The Origin of Your Numbness
There are various reasons why people feel numb during their depression. For some, it’s because they’re consciously pushing down their feelings or repressing them, an “unconscious process where strong emotions and/or trauma is ‘forgotten,’” said Parker, a Dix Hills, NY, psychologist who specializes in mood and anxiety disorders and relationship counseling.
When his clients describe their depression, Parker encourages them to start their sentences with “I feel.” More often than not, this is when they start crying and become emotional. They start “talking about their deep, suppressed emotions.”
Similarly, Saenz-Sierzega has found that many of her clients who experience numbness in their depression are unable to admit, acknowledge and process their emotions. Which, for them, stems from being emotionally neglected by their parents.
Some were raised by parents who struggled with substance abuse, mental illness or bereavement. Others were raised by controlling parents who fought in front of them, “had strict rules, and portrayed perfection as a reality and a necessity,” said Saenz-Sierzega, who works with individuals, couples and families in Chandler, Ariz. These parents both relied on their children and placed their own needs above them.
For instance, Saenz-Sierzega has heard these kinds of statements in session:
“My dad would critique my basketball games and tell me all the mistakes I made.”
“My mom would talk to me about all her boyfriends.”
“When my dad died, I realized I lost my mom too — she was so obsessed with the loss of my father, I never had a mother again.”
“My dad would just come home after work and drink out on the porch.”
“My parents don’t even know me.”
“My parents never talked about their feelings.”
“I learned that conflict is to be avoided at all costs.”
In therapy, Saenz-Sierzega helps her clients reconnect to their inner child in order to understand their emptiness and fill the void. “One’s younger self—the person you were as a child—holds a lot of the answers as to why we feel, think, and behave the way we do today.”
Other people feel numb because of accompanying anxiety. Parker has found that when people describe being in a fog, they’re really talking about anxiety. Some experience anxiety and dread in the early morning or evening, he said. “It can be purely associated with an anxiety disorder, but often there’s a feeling of being trapped and underneath is a tremendous sense of hopelessness, helplessness and depression.”
It’s also common in depression to lose interest in things you previously enjoyed, which can lead to numbness. Parker once worked with a man who was passionate about politics. However, after his depression descended, he lost all interest in the political scene.
Others may become so overwhelmed by their circumstances that they can’t yet process what’s happening. Which is when numbness sets in, Saenz-Sierzega said.
When you have depression (or any illness), the best thing you can do is to seek treatment. There are also strategies you can try on your own. Parker and Saenz-Sierzega shared several below:
- Keep a journal. Parker suggested rating your mood from 1 to 10 on a daily basis, or several times a day if it changes (1 being “suicidal, hopeless, filled with dread, worst depression ever” and 10 being “joyful and filled with energy”). Next to your rating, write down the thoughts that coincide or produce these feelings, he said.
- Expand your feelings vocabulary. Saenz-Sierzega suggested finding a comprehensive “feelings list” to help you better express yourself (like this one).
- Find resources that resonate with you. Memoirs, for instance, can help you put words to what seems like indescribable feelings and experiences. Parker suggested reading William Styron’s book Darkness Visible. “It offers the best description I’ve read of the phenomenological experience of depression.” Here’s an excerpt: “The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.” If you’ve experienced emotional neglect during your childhood, Saenz-Sierzega recommended reading books on the topic. Check out the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Also, the author Jonice Webb pens an excellent blog called “Childhood Emotional Neglect” here on Psych Central.
- Nurture yourself. In your journal, also write down your needs, and create a plan for nurturing yourself, Saenz-Sierzega said. “Treat your current self as that neglected child and attend to your needs.” She shared this example: One of your needs is to have a voice, so you commit to speaking up for yourself. When someone asks your opinion, you plan to offer it. When something happens that you don’t agree with, you will speak up. You will request a raise. You won’t justify your decisions to others.
Depression can manifest in different ways—one of which is numbness, which may stem from various sources. Sometimes, as Parker noted, there’s no explanation. Either way, it’s vital to seek treatment for your depression, and to remind yourself that “despite how permanent it feels, [this] numbness is not permanent,” Saenz-Sierzega said. Remind yourself that you can, and you will get better.