Many people report sometimes feeling disconnected from the world around them, feeling “flat,” or feeling like life is on autopilot. Perhaps events and people seem muted, or less colourful somehow. It can also be described as chronically running on empty, feeling ungrounded, having a hard time focusing, or losing track of time throughout the day. Feeling numb can make it hard to connect with others, which creates loneliness or a sense of isolation.
Emotional numbness, also called “affective blunting,” and is most commonly associated with depression. It can also occur with other mental health conditions. It can be linked with states like dissociation or depersonalization — feelings of being disconnected from yourself, your emotions, or your surroundings. The good news is that emotional numbness is usually temporary and treatable. Below we will walk you through causes, treatment, self-help strategies and additional resources.
Why I feel nothing?
There’s no one answer to this question, but experts have a pretty good theory. Emotional numbness can occur when the limbic system is flooded with stress hormones. This is the area of the brain that deals with emotional regulation and memory. There’s an emotional component as well. High-stress situations can tax our emotions and exhaust the physical body. The combination of the two can lead to a feeling of being drained and consequently, numb.
Numbness may also be a coping mechanism to prevent more pain from entering the psyche. This is especially true for those in high-stress environments and those who have experienced trauma. The mental health conditions most often associated with emotional numbness are depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
What to do when you feel numb
In the moment, you probably don’t feel like doing much at all. Sometimes, just curling up in a blanket and making yourself comfortable can feel soothing. Other times, it can help to move around, talk with a friend, or release some pent-up emotion. We talk more about these methods below.
Move your body
Emotional numbness may feel like being “frozen” for some people. If this is the case for you, exercise might be the last thing on your mind. However, doing any form of physical movement is a great way to get out of your head and into your body. Try just walking around your room and shaking your arms out to connect with your body or put on a lively song and move to the music in a way that feels good. If you want to crank it up a gear, try working up a sweat with a bike ride, a brisk walk outdoors, swimming or some yoga.
If none of these options sound appealing, remember what physical activities you used to love as a child — the hobbies that brought you pure, unbridled joy. Maybe that’s roller-skating, horseback riding, or boogie boarding. Do more of these activities to see if you can tap into that youthful exuberance.
For optimal health try getting at least 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise at least 5 days a week. Moderate exercise means you’re breaking a sweat and your heart is working hard. Regular exercise will get the endorphins flowing and perhaps help you feel more alive yet grounded in your body.
Talk it out
Sometimes, when we feel like we have no one to talk to, we shove our uncomfortable emotions down because we feel safer that way. Do this for long enough, though, and you might find it easier to feel nothing at all — as in, emotional numbness. While it’s hard to be vulnerable, it’s also hard to keep everything bottled up inside. It can help to open up to someone you trust about what you’re going through. You might say something like, “I notice that lately I don’t feel much of anything at all. Has this ever happened to you?”
The bonding experience will release a neurotransmitter called oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone. This feeling of connection may be a welcome relief from the sense of “nothingness” you may be used to. If you don’t feel like opening up to a friend or family member, you might consider reaching out through an online forum, a support group, or a session with an EAP Assist counsellor to talk about what you’re experiencing.
Try grounding exercises
If you feel numb and disconnected, it might help to gently bring your awareness to your body and your surroundings using grounding techniques. These techniques are often recommended for coping with PTSD and anxiety. Grounding can be physical or mental. Here are some ideas to try:
- Breathe deeply and notice your breath moving in and out of your body.
- Touch a familiar object and notice how it feels in your hands. Is it heavy or light? What texture does it have? Does it feel warm or cool?
- Notice the colours of objects around you. Try to find and name five blue, green, or red objects in the room.
- Hold a piece of ice in your hand. How does it feel as it melts? Challenge yourself to name the sensations.
- Put on a favourite song and really listen to it. How does it make you feel?
Release pent-up anger
If you suspect that the emotional numbness has to do with repressed frustration, consider going to a beach or a lake and throwing stones into the water. Or you might consider taking kickboxing classes or booking a day at a batting cage.
Learn about emotions
Self-study can be an effective tool to become familiar with what you’re feeling. Create a mood diary, set a daily alarm, and jot down your emotions every day at the same time. Assign what you’re feeling a number between 1 and 10.