Emotional detachment refers to the inability of a person to fully engage with feelings of their own or those of others. It may interfere with a person’s physical, psychological, emotional, and social development.
However, being able to disconnect from one’s feelings may be helpful for people experiencing stressful situations.
This article discusses the signs and symptoms, as well as the potential causes, of emotional detachment.
Emotional detachment is a psychological condition in which a person is not able to fully engage with their feelings or the feelings of others.
It can be ongoing, as it is in people with attachment disorders, or it can be a temporary response to an extreme situation.
Emotional detachment can present itself in a variety of ways. The following sections will outline these in more detail.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a child can develop two types of attachment disorder:
Reactive attachment disorder
Children may develop reactive attachment disorder (RAD) due to negative experiences with adults in their early years.
Symptoms of RAD include:
- having difficulty calming down
- showing little or no emotions when they are interacting with other people
- not looking for comfort from their primary caregivers
- appearing unhappy, scared, sad, or irritable when taking part in normal activities with the primary caregiver
Disinhibited social engagement disorder
Symptoms of disinhibited social engagement disorder in a child include:
- being overly friendly with people they do not know
- walking up to strangers and perhaps hugging them
- allowing strangers to pick them up
- not checking with their primary caregivers when they are in a stranger situation
Potential symptoms of an attachment disorder in adults can include:
- difficulty opening up
- challenging intimate relationships
- poor listening skills
- a lack of physical, verbal, or sexual contact
- poor self-esteem
- substance abuse
The causes of emotional detachment can depend on whether it is part of a larger attachment disorder or a temporary response to a specific situation.
The sections below outline some potential causes in more detail.
Children may have a greater chance of developing attachment disorders and emotional detachment if they experience difficult circumstances in early life, such as:
- experiencing significant loss, such as the death of a parent or separation from a caregiver
- having traumatic experiences
- growing up in an orphanage
- experiencing emotional abuse
- experiencing physical abuse
- experiencing neglect
Those experiencing emotional detachment may feel emotionally numb. However, emotional detachment does not always occur due to a mental health condition or attachment disorder.
Out of 180 people who took part in the study, 64.5% reported feeling emotionally numb.
Feeling emotionally detached can be a symptom of another mental health condition, including:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): According to the National Institute of Mental Health, feeling emotionally numb can occur with PTSD.
- Depression: People can experience depression differently. Some can feel sad or down, while others can feel apathetic and emotionally numb.
- Personality disorders: According to Mind, a charity based in the United Kingdom, people with borderline personality disorder can begin to feel emotionally numb when stressed.
Whether or not being emotionally detached can be beneficial depends on the cause and scenario.
If it is due to a mental health condition, or if it is affecting a person’s ability to maintain relationships or other aspects of their daily life, a person should seek treatment.
However, it can be beneficial for a person to distance themselves emotionally in some professions. For example, for those who work in the healthcare profession, regulating their emotions can be beneficial to prevent burnout and help maintain their mental well-being.
Some people may also become emotionally detached in order to live through traumatic situations. However, a person should seek treatment to ensure that this does not become permanent.
Trained mental healthcare providers can diagnose emotional detachment.
The first step is typically an interview, or assessment, in which the therapist will ask about the person’s moods, thoughts, feelings, key behaviors, and any recent changes they have experienced. They will also ask how long this has lasted.
Treatment for emotional detachment will depend on individual factors.
If the person is a child, the treatment plan will typically include other members of their family.
For adults, treatment depends on whether the emotional detachment is in response to a specific situation or part of an ongoing pattern.
Individuals can work with therapists to:
- learn how to open up
- find ways to relieve stress and anxiety
- improve their ability to trust others
- strengthen their sense of self
- develop skills for regulating their emotions
Concerns about mental health are very common, with 1 in 5 adults in the United States experiencing a diagnosable condition each year.
In general, the time to seek help is when emotional or mental challenges start to interfere with someone’s daily life on a regular basis.
This might be when such challenges start to cause:
- excessive fear and anxiety
- changes in eating habits
- changes in sleeping habits
- bad moods that do not seem to go away
- mysterious or vague physical ailments
- angry outbursts
- social withdrawal
- poor performance at work or school
- run-ins with the authorities
- substance abuse
- thoughts of suicide
For individuals dealing with emotional detachment due to specific situations, such as a health crisis, making sure that they have the support they need in the moment is vital.
People who develop emotional detachment as a result of a traumatic experience can have a difficult time learning how to connect with other people and give themselves permission to fully experience their feelings.
It can take extensive work with a therapist and community support, but progress is possible.
Emotional detachment can be a serious mental health challenge, particularly when it develops during childhood.
People with emotional detachment can experience great hardship, but there is hope through treatment.
Emotional detachment can also be a reasonable choice when people are contending with difficult situations.