What Causes Emotional Numbness?

Written by Pam MS, NCSP | Fact checked by Psychology Dictionary staff 

Emotional numbness is the inability to feel anything. People who are emotionally numb don't experience happiness, sadness, anger or even fear. Their loved ones often perceive them as being isolated or withdrawn. The person experiencing the emotional numbness is usually horrified by his or her lack of feeling. Some people who are numb resort to cutting or burning themselves just to feel something. Others may take life-threatening risks, hoping to induce fear. Emotional numbness can have many causes.

One cause is depression. Most people think that depression only leads to sadness. In fact, major depression is a cluster of symptoms. Instead of feeling sad, many people feel empty, as if they had nothing at all left inside. People in this condition may stop bathing, getting dressed, going outside and even eating and sleeping. Luckily, depression usually responds to treatment such as medication and talk therapy. Exercise and a healthy diet are also helpful.

A second cause of emotional numbness is trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder. Emotional numbness is especially likely to occur if a person has faced repeated traumatic experiences. Veterans in combat situations, for instance, or women who have faced years of physical and mental torture at the hands of an abusive spouse may experience numbness. People who routinely witness trauma are also at risk. Front line responders such as police, fire fighters and paramedics may also experience numbing. Posttraumatic stress disorder often responds well to individual and group therapy. Techniques like meditation and progressive muscle relaxation can make a difference as well.

Still another cause of emotional numbness is grief, especially if the loss preceding it was sudden or shocking. People who have lost a loved one to suicide or homicide, for instance, often report feeling numb for hours, days or even weeks before the pain of the loss begins to set in. Numbness may also come toward the end of the grieving process when people feel as if "there aren't any tears left." Some people benefit from attending a grief support group or talking to a counselor or a member of the clergy; others are more comfortable with informal sources of support such as friends or family.

Emotional numbness can be a distressing symptom, both for the person experiencing it and for his or her loved ones. It's important to identify the underlying cause and to seek help as soon as possible. No one should have to deal with emotional numbness forever.

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