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Why Do I Feel Emotionally Numb?

Updated on January 28, 2020
denise.w.anderson profile image

Denise has struggled with mental illness most of her life. She also has family members with mental illness. She speaks from experience.

When we are emotionally numb, we are choosing not to feel.
When we are emotionally numb, we are choosing not to feel.

"I don't know what is happening. I feel so numb. I walk around like I am in a daze."

"Life is meaningless. There is nothing for me."

"I have this tingling sensation all over my body, like I am connected to an electric current or something."

Emotional numbness manifests itself differently in each person. Some people feel a sense of emptiness while others actually don't feel anything.

Left unchecked, emotional numbness puts us at high risk of self and other abuse. There are many circumstances that can result in emotional numbness. These are listed in the question below and addressed in the following paragraphs.

What are you experiencing?

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I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock can feel no pain. And an island never cries.

— Paul Simon


Life is full of transitions, such as changing from single status to married, or leaving college behind after graduation and entering the world of full-time employee or business owner. In these cases, there are definite activities and circumstances. We prepare for them and know what to expect.

And then there are those transitions that happen out of the blue. We receive an unexpected diagnosis of a chronic illness, or someone breaks into our home and takes our valuable possessions. These types of transitions give us no warning, and we don't often know what will happen in the future. We feel vulnerable and unsure of ourselves.

This is usually when emotional numbness sets in. We withdraw into a shell in an effort to somehow protect ourselves from the onslaught of variables that have thrown our lives into a tailspin. We look at others with blank stares, and our friends and family start to worry about us. They know that they need to intervene, but aren't sure what to do.

Transitions are especially difficult when we don't know what comes next!
Transitions are especially difficult when we don't know what comes next!

Separation or Loss

The closer we are to the person that is gone, the more difficult it is to deal with it. We miss them. We long for the familiar sound of their voice, the touch of their hand, and the feeling of their presence next to us. A part of us is missing when someone we love is no longer with us.

This feeling of longing becomes an ache that cannot be filled, a hollow emptiness that makes us feel incomplete. We miss the familiar things we used to do together, and the time we spent with each other. When the pain becomes nearly unbearable, we shut off our feelings as an escape and the result is emotional numbness.

Unfortunately, in our efforts to shut out the pain, we also thwart our ability to feel joy and happiness. We close off our hearts, thinking that we are protecting our precious feelings of self-worth, only to find out that we have cut off the very thing that is giving us life.

Our ability to turn our feelings back on is vital to allowing ourselves to swim through the murky waters of grief, and climb onto the shore on the other side. When we finally are able to re-define ourselves without the person we have lost, we give ourselves permission to enjoy life again.

Moreover, we can’t fully appreciate joyful reunions later without tearful separations now. The only way to take sorrow out of death is to take love out of life.

— Russell M. Nelson

Trauma or Abuse

Emotional numbness is the natural result of trauma or abuse. The things that we have experienced are so horrific that if we do not turn off our feelings, they will consume us. Unfortunately, they end up surfacing in the form of hallucinations, nightmares, insomnia, panic attacks, and thoughts of hurting ourselves or others.

When we reach this point, it is time to get help. Mental illness is like cancer of the soul. It does not heal itself. Professional assistance is needed. If we don't know where to start, we can start with our personal family physician or a trusted religious leader. They can recommend and refer us to someone trained in dealing with these types of issues.

In order for us to heal, we have to work through our feelings and re-frame our experiences. This is best done with the supervision of a mental health professional that can guide the process. There is a tidal wave of memories and emotions that is currently being held back by our emotional numbness, and it is best to deal with it one trickle at a time.

The process is not easy, and may require us to experience moments of pain, frustration, and great sadness. At the same time, we are starting from ground zero to rebuild our sense of identity and feelings of self-worth.

We don't realize how good life is until the opposition we face has been resolved.
We don't realize how good life is until the opposition we face has been resolved.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress develops emotional numbness over time. We become calloused from the daily grind of life, and end up loosing our emotional sensitivity. We become hardened toward our colleagues and treat them with disdain when they come to us with requests. We turn a cold shoulder to friends and family when their only hope is to receive our love and affection.

We are much more susceptible to illness when stress takes its toll on our physical well being. We no longer pay attention to the subtle warning signs that tell us something is amiss. We simply plow forward unwittingly while chronic illness creeps in through the nooks and crannies of our minds and bodies.

The wake up call will come sooner or later, either in failed relationships, children who shock us with their bizarre behavior, or the doctor shaking his head and handing us a referral for a specialist. All of a sudden, we realize that we have been numbed into thinking that all is well, when in reality, we should have been paying more attention.

It may require us to take a step back, and if possible, rewind the clock, reexamining our lives to see just what is important, and how we can give it the time and attention it deserves. We begin making decisions that have a more positive long-term impact on our lives than what we have done in the past.

Choose faith over doubt, choose faith over fear, choose faith over the unknown and the unseen, and choose faith over pessimism.

— Richard C. Edgley

Trade Emotional Numbness for Emotional Sensitivity

In order to trade emotional numbness for emotional sensitivity, we first have to realize that emotions come and go. They are not static. They change and evolve with our thoughts, responses, and circumstances. The following series of questions gives us a guide:

  • What is happening?
  • What am I feeling?
  • What am I thinking of doing?
  • What will happen if I do it?
  • Is that really what I want?
  • Is there something better I could do instead?
  • What would be best for me and others in the long run?

Remember, emotional numbness is nothing more than shielding ourselves from the pain. Choose today to feel the pain, and then respond in a better way. Joy and happiness will be the result.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Denise W Anderson


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