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Overcoming Emotional Numbness : Recognition Of The Root Cause

Inevitably, a sense of loss accompanies the experience of childhood trauma, which, in turn, can manifest itself by leaving us with a constant feeling of EMOTIONAL NUMBNESS.

Whilst highly unpleasant, the feeling of emotional numbness is, essentially, a psychological defence mechanism enabling us to avoid certain feelings that would otherwise attach themselves to events and circumstances which remind us of our trauma. Because such feelings would be overwhelmingly painful, we (subconsciously) ‘shut them down’  and enter a protective state of dissociation.

In this way, we may no longer experience strong feelings in relation to people and events that were important to us before we experienced our trauma.

Indeed, this feeling of emotional numbness can be extremely persistent and long-lasting – so much so, in fact, that we may feel that we have been permanently changed or damaged.

It is not unusual, too, for feelings of grief to accompany this numbness, as well as irrational feelings of shame and guilt.

Often, also, we feel closed off – as if there is a kind of thick sheet of almost opaque glass between us and the rest of the world which cannot be penetrated. We may refuse to talk about our experiences and avoid friends and social situations. In this way, our day-to-day functioning can become significantly impaired.



Acknowledging that these symptoms are connected to our experience of trauma is the first step on the journey to recovery. When we feel closed off and empty, it is necessary for us to ask ourselves, ‘What is it that I am trying to avoid? What emotion that I am afraid of is my mind trying to protect me from?’

Often, the answer is love, trust and emotional pain. We fear that if we allow ourselves to open ourselves up to the possibility of feeling such things they will overwhelm and destroy us.

Indeed, as a further defence against making ourselves vulnerable, we may have become bitter and cynical.

Other Causes Of Emotional Numbness :

These include :

  1. depression
  2. anxiety
  3. acute stress
  4. posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  5. complex PTSD
  6. medications (especially those taken for anxiety and depression – N.B. Always consult an appropriate professional when considering starting or stopping a course of medication).

Emotional Numbness, Stress And The Limbic System :

The LIMBIC SYSTEM is the part of the brain that is involved with how we experience our emotions and, when we are under severe and prolonged stress, the stress hormones that our body generates, as a result, can overwhelm this system and adversely affect its functioning which, in turn, can have profound implications for our mood and what we feel, including making as feel ’emotionally deadened.’


The solution will frequently lie in, very gradually, re-exposing ourselves to the possibility of opening ourselves up to such feelings again. It is important, in this regard, to take very small, baby steps and to avoid immediately plunging ourselves into a situation which could potentially trigger intense emotions.

Indeed, if, whilst taking such steps, we begin to feel overwhelmed, it is likely that we are attempting to progress too quickly, or that we may need to acquire professional support to help us to cope with our recovery attempt (recovery itself can be very painful). In this regard, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often effective.


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


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