It is not unusual to feel emotionally numb after or during a very stressful event. A person may also notice a temporary feeling of dissociation or disconnection from the body and the outside world.
Emotional numbness can be a symptom of severe stress. It may also indicate a more persistent mental health condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depersonalization-derealization disorder.
People who experience severe, persistent, or recurrent symptoms should try to seek medical advice.
In this article, learn about how to recognize the symptoms of emotional numbness and what to do if they occur.
Emotional numbness, also known as affective blunting, means that a person is unable to experience emotions. Alternatively, they may feel as though they are cut off from their own emotions.
Some signs and symptoms that may be associated with emotional numbness include:
- feeling disconnected from one’s body or thoughts
- feeling detached from the outside world
- feeling like an outsider in one’s own life
- a distorted or confused sense of time
- difficulty connecting with others
- a reduced ability to sense, process, and respond to emotions and physical signals
Emotional numbness can be a symptom of depersonalization-derealization disorder, which can, in turn, be a symptom of other dissociative disorders.
In a person with depersonalization-derealization disorder, there is a persistent disruption of self-awareness.
The four main symptoms of depersonalization-derealization disorder are:
- feelings of disembodiment, as if one is detached or disconnected from their own body
- emotional numbing and an inability to experience emotions or empathy
- a lack of ownership when recalling personal information or imagining things, known as anomalous subjective recall
- derealization, or a feeling that one’s surroundings are not real
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, a person may feel:
- as if they are in a fog, dream, or bubble
- robotic, or like an automaton
- as if their surroundings are lifeless, colorless, or artificial
There may also be:
- distortions of sight and sound
- memory loss, or a disconnection from one’s memories
- feeling as if living in a dream
- feeling cut off from others
A person may also exhibit the following behaviors:
- a low responsiveness to emotional cues
- a lack of understanding of social situations
- low emotional awareness
Disassociation and derealization are different from hallucinations because the person is aware that what they are feeling only affects them.
Doctors do not know exactly what causes emotional numbness and disconnectedness. The causes may be different for temporary numbness than they are for depersonalization-derealization disorder.
Some causes of temporary emotional numbness that do not appear to have a link with depersonalization-derealization disorder include:
- the use of substances such as cannabis, LSD, and ketamine
- panic or extreme anxiety attacks
- severe depression
- severe anxiety
- receiving news of a terminal illness
Researchers are still investigating how, why, and when depersonalization-derealization disorder occurs, but the following may play a role:
- genetic features
- environmental factors
- biological factors, such as brain structure and brain chemicals
There may also be a link between depersonalization-derealization disorder and:
- paranoid delusions
- frontal lobe epilepsy
Some medications may also trigger emotional numbness.
A 2014 study found that 60% of just over 1,800 adults who had taken antidepressants, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), within the past 5 years had experienced emotional numbness.
Another study looked at 38 people with bipolar disorder who took SSRIs to treat anxiety or depression. The participants reported various effects, ranging from “just not caring” to complete emotional numbness.
Trauma, stress, and depersonalization-derealization disorder
Some research suggests that emotional numbness may develop as a sort of coping mechanism when a person is facing extreme stress. It can help a person avoid processing information that is shocking or upsetting.
A 6-year study from 2016 followed nearly 3,500 children who had had exposure to violence. The authors found that the young people became increasingly desensitized, or emotionally numb, over time.
Factors that may lead to emotional numbness include:
- exposure to traumatic experiences
- physical or other abuse
- extreme stress
- finding out about a terminal illness
Some experts have suggested that emotional numbness may result from a depletion of emotional resources after a period of high emotion, such as stress.
Addressing the underlying stress and any other issues can often help a person manage the symptoms of numbness.
Treatment may involve making lifestyle decisions, trying psychotherapy, or taking medication. The following sections will look at each of these options in more detail.
The following strategies may help relieve the stress that leads to temporary emotional numbness:
- engaging in regular physical activity
- trying relaxation exercises
- eating a healthful diet
- getting enough sleep
- identifying triggers and finding new ways to approach them
- discussing feelings with a trusted individual and asking for help when needed
- seeking treatment for stress
These strategies may also help with depersonalization-derealization disorder.
If making lifestyle changes does not help, a doctor may recommend trying counseling or psychotherapy.
For example, cognitive behavioral therapy can help a person understand how their thoughts and feelings affect their behavior. This can help them learn to approach situations in a new way, which may help reduce anxiety.
There are many types of psychotherapy available, and the best option will depend on the individual’s needs. A therapist can recommend ways to treat and relieve numbness and depersonalization-derealization disorder.
There is no specific medication to treat feelings of numbness, but taking medication to treat an underlying condition, such as depression, may help.
In some cases, the solution may be to stop taking a medication or to switch medications, if the medication itself appears to be triggering the effect.
A doctor may prescribe a medication if the:
- symptoms are severe
- symptoms have a significant impact on the person’s everyday life for an extended time
- person has a diagnosis of PTSD, depression, or another condition
Emotional numbness can result from severe stress, the use of some medications, or a condition such as depersonalization-derealization disorder.
It often passes with time, but if it persists and is severe, a person should see a doctor. They may need treatment for an underlying condition.