Emotional numbness is a coping mechanism that can be necessary to psychologically protect us when traumatic events are occurring. However, emotional numbness becomes a problem if it persists after the traumatic events are over meaning that it no longer serves any useful purpose.
For example, emotional numbness may have helped us survive adverse childhood experiences. However, if it carries on into adulthood and is no longer needed to protect us, its effects become negative.
PTSD and CPTSD:
Emotional numbness protects us from experiencing overwhelming psychological pain. It does not just manifest itself in those who had challenging childhoods, but it can also affect people who have experienced any significant trauma. Indeed, emotional numbing is frequently a predominant symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD): click here to read my article on the difference between these two conditions.
Psychological defence mechanism:
If during childhood, we suffered significant trauma, we may have spent a lot of time feeling threatened and very frightened. As an unconscious response to this, we may have ‘switched off’ our feelings as a psychological defence mechanism against such mental distress.
Anger hiding vulnerability:
It is not unusual for individuals who shut down their emotions in childhood to develop into adults who hide their deep sense of vulnerability (stemming from their childhoods) by becoming excessively angry whenever they feel threatened. In this way, excessive anger may often be masking the person’s underlying feelings of powerlessness and fear.
In other words, such individuals may become angry with others when these others behave in ways that remind them (usually on an unconscious level) of how they were profoundly hurt as children in a desperate attempt to prevent themselves being hurt similarly again.
In this way, the anger such individuals express as adults (particularly when it seems to be highly disproportionate to the provocation), may frequently be not so much a reaction to current events but, rather, a reaction to how these current events remind them of traumatic childhood events.
For example, when I was about twenty, I had an argument with a friend who reacted by demanding that I ‘get out of [his] house!’ Before I knew it, I had punched him (which surprised me as much as it surprised him).
It was only in retrospect that it occurred to me that his words had triggered a memory of what happened to me when I was thirteen, namely my mother throwing me out of her house (permanently) so that I was obliged to move in with my father a stepmother (who, it must be said. did not want me there either).
Damaging long-term effects:
But back to emotional numbness; while it has, relatively speaking, short-term survival value (it prevents us from being psychologically destroyed by our childhood, traumatic experiences), repressing our feelings can have severely adverse effects in the long-term.
For example, our repressed psychological pain may express itself somatically (i.e. by harming the body) in the form of, for example, ulcers, headaches and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Also, repressing emotions requires considerable effort; this can lead to profound and chronic exhaustion (for an extended period of my life, I was having to go to bed at three o’clock in the afternoon and would get up about eight o’clock the next day; this equates to seventeen hours in bed out of every twenty-four. However, because of my extreme insomnia, only a small fraction of that time would be spent asleep; even then, the sleep was shallow and full of terrible nightmares, so I certainly did not get up feeling adequately rested).
Shutting down our feelings helps dampen down negative emotions, but also dampens down positive feelings, leading us to experience a kind of emotional deadness and anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure – click here to read my article on this).
To try to counteract such emotional deadness, sufferers may desperately try to gain at least some form of ‘positive’ stimulation but find, to do so, that they must undertake extreme and risky activities which may include:
- excessive drinking
- excessive smoking
- taking powerful street drugs
- unsafe and promiscuous sex
- excessive gambling
- dangerous driving
- excessive spending
Overcome Fear Of Emotions hypnosis download. Click here for more information.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.