We all have moments in life when we feel empty and numb. Perhaps it’s after a difficult conversation that left us feeling drained or after a big old cry. But this numbness tends to be momentary. Soon enough, life whooshes in and we’re back on the rollercoaster again.
But for some people, this feeling sticks around.
If you’ve been experiencing a sense of emptiness or numbness for an extended period of time, there might be something deeper at play.
I feel empty and numb – what caused this?
When we face overwhelming stress – whether that be physical or emotional – the body has three responses: fight, flight or freeze. As adults, when something overwhelming happens, we have the power to stand up for ourselves or walk away (‘fight’ or ‘flight’). But as children, these options aren’t available to us – we’re trapped. In these cases, disconnecting and detaching from what’s going on might be the only way that we’re able to keep ourselves safe.
At its core, emotional numbness is a coping mechanism. It’s a way of shutting ourselves off from something that has been extremely painful or overwhelming. Sometimes this can be traced back to a specific traumatic event, other times it can be attributed to more of a gradual buildup of experiences which overwhelmed our ability to cope. Sometimes it happens simply because we were never given the tools – or permission – to understand and feel comfortable being with our emotions.
Although the experience might be one of emptiness, at the root of emotional numbness is the opposite – a barrage of feelings which have never been allowed the space to be experienced and felt.
Whilst blocking our emotions might have worked for us in the past – and allowed us to function day-to-day – this way of dealing with our feelings can all too easily become a way of life. And we become “stuck”.
Emotional numbness – otherwise known as detachment – can feel different for different people. You might experience it as a general feeling of emptiness, you might struggle to identify your emotions or you may struggle to share enough of yourself to form deep, meaningful connections.
It can also lead us to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol and drugs in an attempt to feel more ‘alive’.
How can I overcome this feeling of numbness?
- Get in touch with your emotions
The tendency to suppress our emotions has – unfortunately – become part of our culture. But emotions need to be felt, validated and processed. Being with our emotions might feel scary at first, if it’s something we’re not used to, but with time we’ll start to realise that we simply need to allow them to be – and they move on in their own good time.
Emotions are important indicators. They tell us the things that are important to us (and the things that aren’t). If we’re disconnected from our emotions, it’s easy to fall off our “path”. We might end up making life choices based on what we should be doing, rather than what we want to be doing. When we’re living a life that’s out of line with our values, this is going to leave us feeling a little numb or empty inside.
- Move your body
Exercise is probably the last thing on your mind when you’re feeling numb or unmotivated. But try and commit to being active once a day – even if it’s just for 10 mins. Something as simple as a brisk walk around your local park is enough to flood your brain with endorphins.
- Start journaling
Writing is a great way to tune into your emotions. When you write, you’re engaging the left hand side of your brain (analytical, rational) which allows space for the right side of your brain (creative, intuitive) to access your feelings, without any mental blocks getting in the way.
- Grounding exercises
Emotional numbness can leave you feeling dreamy or “out of body”. Grounding exercises are a great way of getting back into your body, and they can be practised wherever and whenever.
This exercise is known as the “54321 Game”. Here’s what to do:
- Describe 5 things you can see in the room.
- Name 4 things you can feel (e.g. “my back against the sheets”)
- Name 3 things you can hear (e.g. “the birds outside my window”)
- Name 2 things you can smell
- Name 1 thing good about yourself.
- Start therapy
Getting to the bottom of why you’re feeling this way is going to be key to your recovery. A therapist will work with you to unpick the past and understand why you developed this coping strategy. With time, you’ll learn healthier ways of being with your emotions.
It’s important to say that emotional numbness can sometimes be a symptom of mental health issues like depression, PTSD or various dissociative disorders. And in these cases, seeking the help of a mental health professional is really important.