What Is Emotional Numbness?
Emotional numbness is best described as a disconnection from feelings and emotions. Just like a physician can numb an area to block the pain associated with a medical procedure, the brain can employ numbing as a method to cope with traumatic or emotionally painful experiences. Many of us will experience some degree of emotional numbness at some point in our lives. Whether it is brought about by intense stress, a traumatic situation, or continual depression and anxiety, emotional numbing is a survival mechanism that our brains use to keep us safe. In situations where emotional numbness lasts for extended periods of time or gets in the way of processing difficult situations or forming emotional connections with others, emotional numbness can be a barrier to an overall feeling of well-being.
What Does Emotional Numbness Feel Like?
Unlike loneliness, anger, or sorrow, emotional numbness can be difficult to identify. It can be even more difficult to describe, especially when we aren’t fully aware that what we are experiencing is a disconnection from our emotions.
Below are several descriptions commonly linked to emotional numbness:1,2
- Feeling like you are separated from everyone else, even as you are interacting with others.
- Feeling like you are invisible, or like your actions do not carry any meaning or have any impact.
- Feeling like the world around you isn’t entirely real, as though everything is happening on a TV screen you are watching.
- Feeling as though you can’t fully engage in or respond to the situations you’re in.
- Feeling a sense of emptiness or weightlessness.
- Feeling like you cannot really focus on or connect with anything in the present moment.
- Feeling like you are unable to experience happiness or joy, even towards those who have been a source of joy in the past.
What Is the Connection Between Child Sexual Abuse and Emotional Numbness?
Because child sexual abuse is a form of trauma, emotional numbness is a common experience for survivors. Sexual abuse trauma’s impact causes the brain to work in overtime, and sometimes the brain’s solution to overwhelming emotions and feelings is to shut the feelings off altogether. This is evidence of the brain’s amazing ability to assess situations and find solutions for increasing feelings of safety. Emotional numbness is, therefore, a very normal response to intense stress. However, this survival mechanism feels less useful when, as an adult survivor of child sexual abuse, you are in a safe, positive situation that would provide an opportunity to feel happy, excited, joyful, or a sense of belonging. But instead, because your brain is working overtime to protect you, the only thing you can feel is numb. Additionally, emotional numbness may contribute to feelings of being “stuck,” or disconnected (both from yourself and from others). So while the emotional numbing helped you survive the trauma, it’s not an effective coping strategy for long-term well-being.
How to Overcome Emotional Numbness
One of the main concerns we hear from survivors who feel emotionally numb is that they feel a lack of connection with others. Because humans are such social creatures, it’s natural that you would long for connection and support. This is why we strongly recommend that you seek out the help and support of a trauma-informed therapist. Sometimes having a safe person to talk to about some of the more difficult memories and feelings in a secure environment is a critical step in beginning to feel the range of emotions again.
Keep in mind that as those emotions begin to resurface, it can feel overwhelming because in addition to emotions you’ll enjoy feeling, there will also be times where you’ll feel emotions that are not as desirable. The beauty of being able to feel emotions is that they serve as a clue to what you need in order to live a more fulfilling life. When feelings of loneliness occur, for example, those emotions may inspire you to reach out to others, which can be a very rewarding experience. Or, if you start to feel overwhelmed or anxious, you may recognize those emotions as indicators that it’s time for some self-care and rejuvenation. But because learning to feel emotion again can be a difficult process, we advise working closely with a good, supportive therapist.