Apathy and a general sense of disconnection may be signs of emotional numbness, but they don’t necessarily mean you’re incapable of emotion.
Being emotionally numb means your emotional experience is lower than expected, dampened, or completely missing.
In situations where you might be expected to experience joy or sadness, you may feel empty or detached instead. This feeling isn’t positive or negative; instead, it’s absent of emotion. And it can be permanent, or it could be momentary.
The inability to feel or express negative, positive, or general emotions is the broad definition of emotional numbness, explains Nana Roest-Gyimah, a licensed master social worker in Colonie, New York.
Roest-Gyimah explains that common signs of emotional numbness include:
- a feeling of being disconnected from yourself and others
- inability to emotionally connect or relate to those around you
- seeking sensations through behaviors that may jeopardize your safety or via self-harming experiences
- loss of interest in things you once enjoyed
- feeling devoid of any emotions, positive or negative, no matter how intense the situation is
- believing you have no emotions
- a general sense that nothing matters
- the absence of care or concern for others or events in your life
- being unable to experience and express the appropriate level of emotion in a given situation
- persistent challenges concentrating
- experiencing constant fatigue
- a lack of general motivation
“You may be emotionally numb if you find it difficult to care about things going on in your life, or other people’s lives,” says Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor in Austin, Texas.
“It can also appear as a loss of interest in things you usually enjoy, feeling like you are just going through the motions, or feeling disconnected from other people. Others may also comment that you seem tired, unfazed, or uninterested,” she indicates.
Emotional numbness vs. blunted affect
These terms describe a range of diminished emotional expression; however, they aren’t always interchangeable.
Blunted or flat affect, though similar to emotional numbness, is often specific to the expression of emotions, and is a state
Experiencing blunted affect can mean you feel an emotion intensely, but you’re unable to express it. Your facial expressions, tone, and eye movement may remain neutral, for example, even if you’re extremely distressed.
Emotional numbness may include blunted affect, but your expression of emotion tends to be diminished because of your lower capacity to experience that emotion.
In other words, you can experience blunted affect even in the presence of strong emotions, while emotional numbness may imply both limited feeling and expression.
“Emotional numbness is generally a survival mechanism or a protective response to trauma, stress, pain, or discomfort that we may experience emotionally or physically,” explains Roest-Gyimah. “This can be a survival mechanism adopted at any point in our lives, including in our childhood.”
Becoming emotionally numb may be a way of preventing intense emotions from overwhelming your coping ability. It can be an experience that protects you in the moment, or remains with you long term, depending on the challenges you face.
Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Niantic, Connecticut, explains that emotional numbness can exist on a spectrum of severity, depending on the cause.
Roest-Gyimah explains that numbing emotions can become a way of feeling safe for many who have experienced overwhelming situations like traumatic incidents, physical or emotional abuse, unstable home environments, or bullying.
For example, someone who’s experienced emotional or physical rejection as a child may turn emotionally numb during childhood or later in life.
“Emotional numbing can be used as a coping mechanism to survive each day as it allows the individual to block out any emotional pain they are continuously faced with, whether that be through memories or present-day occurrences,” she explains.
Living with trauma may also lead some people to experience dissociation, which sometimes can look similar to emotional numbing. Trauma-related dissociation refers to a sense of separation or detachment from yourself and your thoughts and emotions. It’s a defense mechanism to protect yourself from overwhelming pain. By definition, it isn’t the same as emotional numbness.
As a coping mechanism, feeling emotionally numb may also serve as a way to lessen the pain associated with significant losses and grief.
According to Roest-Gyimah, this may happen in small ways, such as numbing emotions to make it through the work day.
Dissociation is also possible when experiencing intense grief and stress. It can be on a continuum from mild to more severe dissociation. Mild dissociation may look like emotional numbness.
You can feel overwhelmed to the point where your defense mechanisms kick in.
“Emotional numbing can be a way for someone to attempt to escape an emotionally triggering situation in the moment as well as over long periods of time,” says Roest-Gyimah.
This may mean being emotionally numb after an argument with your partner, for example, or turning emotionally numb for several months while you deal with a loved one’s terminal illness.
Mental health disorders
Feeling emotionally numb may also be a symptom of some mental health disorders, including:
- major depressive disorder or clinical depression
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- anxiety disorders
- dissociative disorders
Emotional numbness may be closely associated with depression, but flat affect more so. In a cross-sectional, observational
Being emotionally numb may also be the result of brain-altering conditions, such as:
- substance use disorder
- side effects of medications
- brain injury
- degenerative brain disease
If you wonder why you’ve suddenly become emotionally numb or been numb to emotion for a long time, reaching out to a mental health professional may help you explore possible answers.
If you’re feeling emotionally numb all of the time, find it’s disrupting your everyday life, or notice your relationships are impacted, a mental health professional can help.
Identifying and treating underlying challenges related to trauma or mental health disorders may be one way to overcome emotional numbness.