Have you ever felt as if life is on mute? Or that the colorful, rich and engaging world around you suddenly feels desaturated and plain?
It’s pretty common to feel emotionally numb, as if you’re incapable of feeling either positive or negative emotions. Numbness can occur for many reasons, and it can be a symptom of depression or other forms of mental illness.
We all experience numbness from time to time, though. Yet when emotional numbness lingers, it can have a serious impact on your wellbeing.
Here we explain what emotional numbness is, as well as how it can develop as a result of life events, illnesses and medication.
Below you can also learn what you can do if you’re feeling emotionally numb, whether it’s reaching out to friends and family or seeking out a mental health professional.
Emotional numbness refers to a lack of positive emotions and a reduced tendency to express your emotions through behavior.
The term “emotional numbness” is sometimes used to refer to anhedonia — a reduced ability to feel pleasure.
People with anhedonia often find it difficult to experience pleasure from activities, hobbies and even from social contact or sex.
Know this: Emotional numbness can vary in severity. You might feel like you’re just less interested in some aspects of life than normal, or like you have no emotions at all.
When you’re emotionally numb, you might experience the following symptoms:
Feeling as if you don’t have any positive emotions, even when things happen that would normally make you feel happy.
A reduced level of interest in your hobbies and other activities that would normally cause you to feel pleasure.
Feeling “blah” or “meh” about anything that happens in your life, even if it’s a significant or meaningful event.
A sense that you’re detached from yourself and can’t relate to your feelings in a normal way.
Difficulty caring about certain events, people or other things that would normally play an important part in your life.
A feeling that you’re emotionally disconnected from your close friends, family members and other people in your life.
Boredom and a sense that nothing can grab your interest, even if it would normally be a fulfilling part of your life.
Feeling emotionally numb can occur for many reasons, from distressing events to mental health issues such as depression. You might experience emotional numbness as a result of:
Major depression disorder. An “empty” mood is one of the most common symptoms of depression. If you’re depressed, you may feel like nothing can bring you joy, or that your hobbies are no longer interesting.
Grief. It’s common to feel shocked, in disbelief or anxious when you lose someone or go through a stressful, traumatic event. Some people feel numb after losing a loved one or going through another difficult, unexpected experience.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You may develop emotional numbing if you’re affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. A range of PTSD symptoms can contribute to feelings of numbness, including reduced emotional expression and anhedonia.
Substance abuse. People with substance-abuse disorders may feel emotionally numb and disconnected. Research shows there’s a link between substance use and anhedonia — a lack of interest in hobbies and activities.
Physical health issues. Some physical health conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain, are associated with reduced feelings of pleasure.
Medications. Some medications may cause feelings of numbness. For example, SSRIs — a common class of antidepressants — cause some people to feel apathetic and display blunted emotions.
Sometimes, a variety of factors may contribute to feelings of numbness and apathy.
If you’re in a rough patch in which nothing seems to go your way, you might start to feel numb in response to a combination of stress, pressure and other issues.
Feeling numb can wash the color from life and leave you feeling isolated and unhappy. While it may not feel like it when you’re numb, it is possible to make progress and recover the emotional richness of life.
If you’re feeling numb or emotionless, try the following strategies to get relief and make progress towards recovery.
Feeling emotionally numb is a common symptom of depression.
Yet if you’re feeling depressed, it’s important to establish a support network of close friends, family members and other loved ones you can rely on to help you move forward.
Research shows that friends and family can often provide emotional support and understanding when you’re feeling depressed or unhappy about life.
Get in touch with your close friends and family, and talk about what you’re going through.
We know it can be tough, but reducing stress is key.
Stress can have a significant impact on your physical and mental health, and can contribute to depression.
In fact, when you’re dealing with extreme or overwhelming stress, you may start to feel numb to other aspects of life.
If you’re feeling numb, take steps to minimize the amount of stress you deal with on a daily basis. Baby steps.
This could mean making changes to your habits, avoiding people or situations that make you feel stressed or using stress relief techniques, such as meditation.
Sleep is essential for good mental health. In fact, even mild sleep deprivation can have a major effect on your mood and cognitive function.
Research has found that people who get less than eight hours of sleep per night are more likely than their peers to report feeling overwhelmed, irritable, angry, impatient and lacking motivation.
If you often fail to get enough sleep, try getting to bed earlier and spending seven to eight hours asleep each night.
Exercise is a great natural treatment for depression and emotional numbness.
Not only can it distract you from distressing or unpleasant thoughts — it also stimulates the release of natural chemicals called endorphins, which can improve your mood.
Try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, such as brisk walking or cycling sessions around your neighborhood, as well as two strength workouts.
If you think your emotional numbness could be caused by depression, PTSD or any other form of mental illness, it’s important to reach out to a professional for help.
In fact, it’s a good idea to reach out to a healthcare professional even if you’re feeling numb and don’t know the cause.
You can seek help locally by searching for psychiatrists, psychologists or other licensed mental healthcare providers in your area.
Alternatively, you can connect with a psychiatrist online using our online psychiatry service to receive professional help from home.
If appropriate, your mental health provider may prescribe antidepressants or other medication to help you better control your moods and improve your emotional state.
These medications work by changing your levels of certain brain chemicals. This guide to SSRIs provides more information about what you can expect if you’re prescribed an antidepressant.
Your mental health professional may also recommend a form of therapy referred to as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), during which you’ll learn strategies to gain more control over your thoughts and feelings.
Our guide to the types of therapy explains more about how different forms of therapy may help improve your symptoms and quality of life.
Everyone goes through ups and downs from time to time, including periods that involve emotional numbness.
If you’re currently feeling numb, reaching out to a friend or family member and making changes to your lifestyle can often help you feel better.
And if you have a persistent feeling of numbness, it’s always best to contact a mental health provider for professional advice and assistance.
With time and proactive treatment, even the most severe emotional numbness can pass, letting you enjoy the richness of life again.
Worried your numbness might be a sign of depression? Our guide to the common symptoms of clinical depression goes into more detail about what you may experience if you’re depressed, as well as the options you have for getting help.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.