When others talk about their emotions, do you worry what they’d think if if they knew that you felt…. nothing? Empty? Are you left to secretly wonder, "What is wrong with me? Why do I feel so numb?"
Yes, sometimes we feel numb because our body is trying to protect us. If we experience a very stressful event, our brain triggers our ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode. Chemicals flood our body, numbing our thoughts and feelings so our instincts can kick in and save us.
But if our numbness is not in the face of an emergency but just a daily occurence, it’s not so helpful.
We might tell ourselves we like feeling numb. Or boast we don't need feelings, and continue a life where we sleepwalk through our days, unable to think clearly or feel that anything has meaning. We can even lose physical sensation, or feel like our body is not our own, but we are watching it from a disance.
Living our life this emotionally numbed out can mean that we:
So what has left you feeling blank? There are several issues that can be at play here.
It doesn’t always mean you are crying and feeling sad! Feeling numb is actually a leading symptom of depression. People describe it as feeling like their mind is fuzzy or full of sand, or like they are disconnected from themselves.
High levels of stress and/or anxiety.
Stress and anxiety trigger our fight or flight response. We end up on such a rollercoaster of cortisol highs followed by crashing lows it can block our emotions. And stress and anxiety is all consuming, there is no brain bandwidth left for feelings.
Repressed emotions and memories.
Think of a beach ball that you have to keep underwater. All your focus has to go onto it. Keeping unwanted thoughts and feelings pushed down in our brain is similar. It takes all our energy and focus, and leaves us feeling tired and disconnected.
As adults, if someone is hurting us, we can walk away. But as children we are trapped. Many children are left to navigate things like abuse or neglect by using a coping mechanism called ‘dissociation’. This is where you disconnect from what’s happening, as if you are floating outside of yourself and watching your life happen to someone else.
PTSD can start after a shocking and overwhelming experience, like a car crash or witnessing violence. If you have PTSD your body easily triggers into fight or flight, leaving you on edgy cortisol ‘highs’ and numbed out lows. And your brain can dissociate to avoid memories of your traumatic experience.
Sleep issues can come alongside anxiety, depression, and PTSD, or be standalone. After weeks of patchy sleeping the brain starts to lose its capacity to function well. We can feel disconnected and numb.
Finally, it is possible although not common to be born with a brain that simply isn't geared to grasp emotions. This is a personality trait known as ‘alexithymia’. People who have it tend to be very logical, struggle to use their imagination, and don't have nuanced feelings or understand emotions well.
Things that actually hurt you physically or emotionally don't help.
This can look like self harm, drug and alcohol overuse, allowing other people to emotionally or physically abuse you, or sex addiction, where you have casual encounters in an attempt to ‘feel alive’. The end result of such activities tends to be feeling worse and more numb.
To stop feeling numb we have to get to know ourselves and stop running away from ourselves. It’s a journey we have to commit to, and not always an easy one.
But often, it’s our fear of ‘the monster in the closet’ which is worse than the actual monster itself. Turning and facing difficult past experiences can be challenging and emotional, but also a relief.
There are many self help techniques that can help you get started. This can include journalling and mindfulness, as well as learning how to ask yourself good questions. Self-care can also help. work on getting quality sleep, stay away from drugs and alcohol, and develop an exercise routine.
Support is highly recommended. Trying to process past experiences can be a Pandora's box. We can discover more than we bargained for, and feel mired in shame and self-blame. A talk therapist can help you maintain perspective. They'll help you stay on track and moving forward, and gently point out where you are being too hard on yourself or making decisions to hurt instead of heal yourself.