Life can be a series of ups and downs. But what does it mean when you no longer feel joy, sadness, or other emotions like you used to?
Imagine buying a ticket to a comedy movie. During the show, you notice that everyone around you is laughing at the jokes. You wish you were laughing too, but you just don’t share that same sense of giddiness — at least not anymore.
Or maybe you’re at work and your team just got some bad news: sales are down and people will need to be laid off. Again, you notice those around you are visibly upset, yet you don’t feel that depth of distress in quite the same way.
Although everyone is different and these reactions may be a result of many factors, they could also point to something else: emotional blunting.
“Emotional blunting” is a term used to describe having a limited or muted emotional response to events. This could be different from the reaction that you’d typically expect.
With this symptom, you may also have difficulty accessing the full range of emotions that you’re used to.
Emotional blunting can be temporary, lasting from a few minutes to a few hours at a time. It can also occur over the long term, from months to years. It all depends on the underlying cause.
Experiencing emotional blunting may affect your relationships and how you feel about yourself and the world.
Emotional blunting looks different for everyone. It may also depend on what is “typical” for you.
Some common signs of emotional blunting include:
- a lack of concentration
- difficulty maintaining relationships
- feeling disconnected from your body or mind
- having less empathy for others
- inability to feel happy or sad
- indifference toward yourself or those you love
- loss of libido
- trouble speaking
- feeling empty or numb
You may also inadvertently or purposefully engage in self-harm or potentially harmful behaviors in an effort to feel something. Such behaviors may include speeding on the highway or using high quantities of drugs or alcohol in social situations.
Emotional blunting may reflect in your facial expressions and other nonverbal cues. When you don’t express a full range of emotions, like excitement or sadness, this is known as a “flat affect.”
Emotional blunting is most commonly linked to taking antidepressant medications, but a range of underlying conditions could also cause it.
Research suggests that 50% of people with a depression diagnosis who take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) experience emotional blunting as a side effect.
With this personality trait, you may have difficulty identifying your feelings, finding the best words to describe them, or distinguishing emotions from bodily sensations. This could then lead to flat affect and emotional blunting.
Borderline personality disorder
One of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) is dissociation, which can cause you to feel disconnected from your sense of self, including your emotions.
Research suggests that people who live with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) experience emotional blunting along with agnosia, an inability to recognize objects, faces, or voices.
This medical condition stems from a deficiency of vitamin B1 due to alcohol use disorder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
If you’re living with PTSD, triggers and flashbacks can cause dissociation or depersonalization/derealization, where you feel disconnected from your environment. This could also lead to emotional blunting.
“Negative symptoms” of schizophrenia can inhibit your ability to engage with the world. They may affect your speech, listening, and motivation, as well as your ability to experience your usual range of emotions.
Alcohol, opiates and opioids, and cannabis act as depressants on the nervous system, which can limit your emotional reactivity.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
Research suggests that 40% of people with a traumatic brain injury experience something called socioemotional dysfunction, which includes emotional blunting.
With the right support, emotional blunting can be managed. It usually depends on the treatment you receive for the primary cause or condition causing it.
If your emotional blunting is caused by a mental health condition like depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, or BPD, talk therapy may help.
There are different approaches that may be effective for this goal. When treating PTSD, for example, somatic experiencing or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help.
If antidepressant medication is the cause of your emotional blunting, a psychiatrist may transition you to a different drug or adjust your dose.
In this case, you can expect to see some improvement within 4 to 6 weeks, as the medication adjusts in your system.
You may find it comforting to engage with others who are having similar experiences. If your emotional blunting is related to substance use disorder, for example, consider a related meeting.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
- Double Trouble in Recovery
- LifeRing Secular Recovery
- Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
- Smart Recovery
- Women for Sobriety
Reengage in activities you love
If you’re feeling up for it, engage in activities you used to enjoy, like art, sports, playing music, visiting a social club, or spending time in nature. It may not boost your mood to the same level of intensity you’re used to, but it may help.
When we do activities we enjoy or spend time with others, we experience a neurochemical cocktail of “feel-good” neurotransmitters and hormones like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin.
Avoid drugs and alcohol
Drugs and alcohol may act as a depressant on your mood, making symptoms feel worse.
Stimulate your senses
You may find it helpful to infuse your day with experiences that engage your senses. Some ideas include:
- Sight. Look at photos of loved ones, watch a campfire, or go stargazing.
- Touch. Pet an animal, put on a warm and fuzzy bathrobe, or hold an ice cube.
- Taste. Drink warm tea, eat spicy food, or lick a lemon wedge.
- Smell. Visit a blooming garden, light incense, or use an essential oil diffuser.
- Sound. Listen to birds chirping, waves crashing, or wind blowing through the trees.
Leave expectations and guilt aside
If you’re experiencing emotional blunting, it’s not your fault. Even though other people — or even you — may think you’re supposed to feel a certain way in a specific situation, this symptom may be out of your control at the moment.
Consider focusing on practical steps, like those above, that may help you manage and overcome the symptom, instead of dwelling on how you should be feeling according to other standards.
Emotional blunting is not a diagnosis on its own, but a symptom of an underlying condition.
With such a range of possible causes for emotional blunting, it’s a good idea to check in with a physician or mental health professional.
A professional will be able to look at the bigger picture of symptoms, give you a proper diagnosis, and recommend management options so you can start to heal.
For some people living with emotional blunting, a simple switch of medications will do the trick.
For others, it may be necessary to incorporate lifestyle changes, like talk therapy and limiting alcohol and drugs.
It may be helpful to remember that you don’t have to live this way forever. With the right diagnosis, it’s possible to move past emotional blunting and feel more like “you” again.
These resources may help:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness helplines and support tools
National Institute of Mental Health’s helpline directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists