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depression numbing anhedoniaSevere emotional distress and trauma can lead to a psychological defence known as emotional numbing.

Emotional numbing occurs when our conscious experience becomes so overwhelmingly, mentally painful that our feelings, in effect, ‘switch themselves off;’ the result is a kind of psychological ‘escape from reality – a reality which has become too terrible to tolerate.

Those who experience emotional numbing may use metaphors in an attempt to describe their condition such as: ‘It’s as if I’ve turned to stone,’ or, ‘it’s like my heart’s become made of stone.’ Sadly, in this state, the person may feel s/he no longer cares about him/herself or others – even close family members / previously close friends.

This may sound a distressing state to be in itself, but part of the condition of emotional numbing means, too, that the person may also not care that s/he doesn’t care.

How Long Does Emotional Numbing Last?

The condition may be a relatively transient response following a severely traumatic incident or it may become long-term in response to protracted exposure to traumatic conditions especially, for example, if one has developed complex posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of a traumatic childhood. In such cases, the sense of psychic numbing may persist (in the absence of effective therapy) for years or even decades.

Are Both Good And Bad Feelings Affected?

Generally, yes. Whilst the condition may arise as a defence against bad feelings, the ability to feel anything good tends also to greatly diminish, including the loss of the ability to gain pleasure from food and sex (for more about the inability to experience feelings of pleasure, see my article about anhedonia).

The Sense Of ‘Anesthesia.’

When one is in the grip of emotional numbing, it can feel not only as if one has been given an ’emotional anaesthetic’, but, sometimes, too, as if one has also been physically anaesthetized as the body itself can become relatively numb to the sense of pain.

Research Into Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) And Emotional Numbing :

Some researchers have suggested that the symptom of psychic numbing is intrinsically bound up in the biological responses which form the foundation of PTSD.

Signs Of Being Emotionally Numb:

  • Feeling different from others and believing that they are getting much more fulfilment out of their relationships and life in general.
  • Finding life meaningless.
  • Intrusive, suicidal thoughts.
  • Having a psychological, and sometimes physical, sense of emptiness.
  • A feeling of going through life like a robot or automaton.
  • Taking risks/seeking thrills in an attempt to feel something (e.g taking up rock-climbing or gambling large sums of money).
  • A feeling of viewing the world and other people through thick, opaque glass and of profound disconnection from them.

Emotional numbing is also closely related to depersonalization and a sense of loss of identity.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).