Numb... is Also a Feeling
Updated: Oct 21
Have you ever felt numb, empty, and/or checked out? Have you been feeling too much for too long? Have you ever wondered why we experience numbness?
Numbness, just like any other emotion, is important, but it may be less straightforward to understand compared to other emotions. This may be because numbness typically happens when we are feeling too much and are consciously/unconsciously disconnected from our internal world (i.e., thoughts, emotions, memories, physical sensation, etc.) as well as external world (i.e., friends, family, the world around us). The experience of numbness can also be slightly different for each of us. For example, life can feel dull like we’re existing on autopilot. We may feel like a shell of a person as if we are dead inside. In addition, we can shut down and lose track of time.
Why Do We Feel Numb?
We may be more prone to numbing if we have had episodes of depression, experienced traumatic events, and are going through chronic stress/burnout. You can read more about these experiences in our previous blogs on mental health concerns by clicking here. Numbing out can be a way that we have learned to cope with overwhelming circumstances by cutting off pain to keep going in our lives. This makes sense since our brain and body will try its best to protect us. We can only feel so much for so long before we get exhausted.
How to Cope With Numbness
At times, our numbness is masking painful emotions we are not ready for or equipped to deal with. The following are suggestions to cope with numbness that come from an Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) practice (Harris, 2018):
Start by noticing the different elements of numbness. What does numbness feel like in the body? Does numbness live in a certain part of your body?
Acknowledge the numbness by naming it. “This is a feeling of emptiness.” “I’m noticing feelings of detachment.”
Practice validating the purpose of numbing. “It makes sense that I feel numb right now. I’ve been overwhelmed for so long.” “My mind and body are trying to cope the best it can.”
Numbness is a valid emotion. See if you can allow it to be there. See if you can try breathing and making room for numbness to exist within you.
See if you can explore the numbness. Ask yourself, are there difficult/painful emotions beneath the numbness? Sometimes, it could be sadness, grief, fear, etc.
Take some time to understand what the numbness is trying to tell you. Emotions communicate important information, especially about our values and life choices.
Try to extend kindness and compassion to your numbness. You can gently place your hand on your chest or another part of your body, where you feel the numbness. You can remind yourself that you are not alone in this feeling. You can read more about self-compassion practices here.
Numbing out is a common and adaptive response. Emotional numbing may suggest you are having a trauma, depression, and/or stress response. The longer you are disconnected from yourself, your internal experiences, and the external world, the more challenging it can be to connect with numbness along with the other feelings beneath it. Remember, you are not alone.
If you are interested in starting therapy to help cope with feelings of emptiness/numbness, shifting out of autopilot, and re-engaging in your life, you can reach out to us here.
Stay tuned. Our next topic is "Self-Soothing With Your Senses."
Harris, R. (2018). Working With Numbness.
Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.
Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.