A Therapist Explains Why We Shut Down When Flooded with Big Emotions

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Ever feel like you’re spiraling down a path of so much stress and anxiety that your brain takes a sharp left to la-la land? This is a psychological phenomenon known as emotional numbness. It’s something our mind does to help us cope when we’re flooded with big emotions. Emotional numbing can have a significant impact on mental health, leading to feelings of detachment, apathy and a lack of interest in activities that once brought joy. Joe Nemmers, LISW, UnityPoint Health, explains when, why and how people get to a state of feeling emotionally numb and how to care for yourself.

What is Emotional Numbness

Emotional numbness is a form of a mental health condition called dissociation. By itself, dissociation isn’t uncommon. Remember the last time you drove to the grocery store and couldn’t remember getting there? That’s a form of dissociation. In fact, if you’ve ever zoned out, lost track of time while reading a good book or daydreamed during your afternoon walk, you’ve
experienced a form of dissociation.

Similar to when you zone out, emotional numbness happens unconsciously. It’s the result of our minds disconnecting from our thoughts, actions, sense of self and sensory experience of the world around us.

Nemmers describes it as a survival mechanism from our sympathetic nervous symptom.

“In the face of physical or emotional pain, or a traumatic incident, our sympathetic nervous system has three responses: fight, flight or freeze. Emotional numbing is freezing. Our brain shuts down as a protective response to keep us safe when our nervous system is overloaded,” he says.

Initially, emotionally numbing is helpful, because it helps calm our overwhelmed minds. Over time, it can be harmful and lead to behaviors with serious consequences to our emotional and physical well-being.

Why People Emotionally Shut Down

Trauma, prolonged stress, anxiety, depression and grief all contribute to feeling emotionally shut down. Nemmers says medication, while lifesaving for many, can also trigger a side effect of emotional numbness.

Additionally, he says to keep in mind everyone internalizes and interprets trauma differently. What’s life-changing for one person might be a blip on the radar for another.

“I've met people with similar traumatic experiences where it’s more manageable for one person but hinders the other person for life. It’s amazing how everybody responds differently. However, in any circumstance where stress, anxiety and depression aren’t situational and are long-lasting, the brain can go into numbing mode,” he says.

What Dissociation Feels Like

Nemmers says feeling emotionally numb has a few outward signs people can watch for, whether they’re experiencing it themselves or recognizing it in someone else:

  • Flat, blank stares
  • Dampened sense of excitement
  • Isolating from activities and people
  • Having a distorted sense of time

“When you’re emotionally numb, hours can pass, and you may not even notice. Or, something exciting can happen, like witnessing a homerun at a baseball game, and you don’t feel the same rush as the crowd,” he says.

Healthy Ways to Cope with Emotional Numbness

Because feeling emotionally numb equates with feeling disconnected, Nemmers says the best thing you can do to stop feelings of dissociation is to connect with people.

“It can’t be overstated that having a strong support system, as far as family and friends, is important to tapping back into the world around you and developing healthy coping mechanisms. Sometimes, people don’t realize they're emotionally numb. However, friends and family may notice you’ve been acting differently, so it’s important to pay attention to their feedback and stay connected to people who care about you,” he says.

Other coping mechanisms to reconnect to yourself and others, include:

  • Moving your body with exercise
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Minimizing stress
  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Eating nutritious foods

Risk of Addiction, Self-Harm or Loneliness

People who experience emotional numbness may engage in certain behaviors to avoid feeling negative emotions. These behaviors are often used as a coping mechanism, but they can also negatively impact a person’s health.

Substance abuse. Nemmers says, “Some people will reach to alcohol or drugs to get a sense of euphoria, feel real or get some emotion back.” This temporary relief from negative emotions can lead to addiction and other health problems. Substance abuse can also worsen symptoms of emotional numbness over time, making it more difficult for people to connect with others and experience positive emotions.

Avoidance. This behavior can take many forms, such as steering clear of certain people or situations that trigger negative feelings or avoiding social interactions altogether. Avoidance can prevent individuals from working through their emotions and lead to a cycle that reinforces emotional numbness over time.

Self-harm. People who feel dissociation for long periods of time may start self-harming such at cutting, burning or performing other forms of self-injury, so they can feel something. These behaviors can lead to serious harm and worsen symptoms of emotional numbness. It’s important to see a mental health professional if you or a loved one is engaging in self-harm.

Overeating. Emotional eating is a normal coping mechanism people do to escape uncomfortable emotions or an overloaded nervous system. In fact, when stressed, humans crave comfort foods, which then lessen the impact of stress hormones, such as cortisol.

While these behaviors may provide temporary relief from emotional pain, over a period of time they can be harmful to your mental and physical health. People who consistently overeat to dull negative feelings should consider talking to their doctor. Then, learn more about the mental health resources available that can help address the underlying reason for feeling emotionally

When to Get Help for Emotional Numbness

While the body’s response to negative feelings is meant to keep us safe, it becomes concerning when emotional numbness is experienced for a long period of time.

Nemmers says the deciding factors for getting help with emotional numbness are the frequency, intensity and duration of the feeling.

“I think the key is when it starts to interfere with daily, healthy routines. If you stop doing what you enjoy, are missing work, don’t want to socialize as much or engage in activities that are problematic for your mind and body, it’s time to get help,” he says.

If you, or a loved one is struggling with dissociation or emotional numbness, talk to your doctor and explore mental health resources available to you.

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