Depression Symptoms: Feeling Numb

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship's smoke on the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying.
When I was a child I had a FEVER. My hands felt just like two balloons.
Now I've got that feeling once again
I can't explain, you would not understand
This is not how I am.

I have become comfortably numb.

Pink Floyd "Comfortably Numb"

We are going to pick up our series on depression symptoms with a discussion about feeling emotionally numb. A couple of weeks ago we had a very insightful conversation about the feeling of hopelessness and you can still contribute your thoughts and shared experiences to that post. Although there are many textbook lists of depression symptoms, my wish is to get away from the medical talk and get real. What are depressive symptoms truly like for those who suffer from them? What are they like for our loved ones and caretakers to witness? How do we cope? I am hoping that this series will initiate an on-going dialogue for all those who are dealing with depression and its many flavored nuances.

What is emotional numbness and what causes it?

Emotional numbness is the inability to feel much of anything. Things that used to make us feel happy or elicit a smile produce a weak response or nothing. Likewise things that should provoke us to anger or even tears result in an apathetic response. It is a lack of emotion where there once was emotion. One of the causes can definitely be depression. I feel that this symptom results from feeling overwhelmed and overburdened by life's challenges to the point where you just can't feel anymore. You are too tired and weary to emote. It can also be a protection against feeling too much as in after a trauma. It can be the process of shock where we simply cannot take in the emotional reality of what is going on. The mind is protecting itself from too much pain.

The irony is that some of the antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications we use to overcome mood disorders can also cause emotional numbness. My short lived experience taking amitriptyline and then Prozac gave me a feeling of being flatlined emotionally. I wasn't sad but I also wasn't happy. I was simply there.

Some people achieve numbness through addictions to drugs and alcohol or even food. Addictions can be a way to escape very painful feelings and achieve that feeling of numbness.

The problem with emotional numbness is that you may be avoiding pain but you are also avoiding all the good emotions too like happiness and love. It is like sitting on the curb and watching life pass by without truly living it yourself.

What is your personal definition of emotional numbness and what do you feel is the cause?

What does emotional numbness feel like?

I was recently on the Dr. Oz show talking about depression and one of my fellow depression sufferers shared a very poignant story about what it is like to be emotionally numb. This woman shared that she would go out into the bitter cold of winter and wait until her skin was freezing. She would then pinch her cheeks just to feel that pain, so she could know she was alive. Her story brought tears to my eyes as I can relate.

I call the experience of emotional numbness as being sucked into the "big black hole." Once you are in there it is hard to get out. All you can see is darkness. There is complete nothingness. I felt like people could see through me as though I was a walking spirit. I didn't matter. Nothing mattered and so why feel anything? I was too tired to feel. And so the days just blended together into one never ending shade of gray.

When I was a teen ager and young adult I used to cut my skin in order to feel something. The pain felt good to me because it told me I could still feel something even if it was physical pain. It took much work with a therapist to combat these feelings and to redirect my strategy towards more healthy approaches to dealing with numbness.

What has emotional numbness felt like for you?

What does emotional numbness look like to the rest of the world?

I had a co-worker at my workplace who was also my best friend. He was my mirror. He knew when I was depressed because he would tell me that my speaking voice was monotone and slow. He called it "emotional flatlining." This friend would comment that my facial expressions were flat and that my gait would even change. The interesting thing is that I was not aware of how I appeared. I was too numb to care.

The outside world may interpret your emotional numbness as being cold or apathetic. Some people may think you don't care anymore about anything including relationships. Others may accuse you of being distant or aloof. They may not understand that this is part of depression. One does not always have to be crying to be depressed.

The other thing which others and your therapist may pick up on is that if you tell a sad story from your life you may show inappropriate affect. I would be in my therapist's office discussing my experience with trauma and I would be smiling or even laughing. I wasn't emotionally connected to what I was saying and could not feel the pain. This too, is evidence of emotional numbness.

What do you think your emotional numbness looks like to others? If you were a friend or loved one trying to help you during these times, how do you think it feels for them?

What can one do to combat feelings of emotional numbness?

  • Seek out the help of a good therapist. If you are unable to feel, you need support to go through the process of thawing out. I guarantee that when you do begin to feel again, some of it will be painful. You will need support to get you through.

  • Realize that despite feeling no pain, you are also denying yourself opportunities to feel good again. If you block everything out, you have also shut out happy feelings. Understand that all feelings are not bad or painful.

  • It may be cathartic to read books or watch movies which contain a lot of emotion. Immersing yourself in emotional content may be a more safe way to feel empathy and to begin feeling some emotion yourself.

  • Try getting in touch with your feelings through the creative arts. Take photos, paint, or write to express feelings, even ones of emptiness.

  • Attempt to feel your feelings as they are happening. One problem I have is that I deflect my feelings for another time as I remain in shock. Try to be present and conscious about whatever it is you are feeling even if it is to process sensory feelings of what you see, taste, hear, smell, and touch.

Emotional numbness can block our potential for growth. If you are experiencing this symptom of depression please do seek support and help. You don't need to deal with this alone. My Depression Connection is one place you can safely talk about these things and get the support you need.

How about you? What things have helped you the most when you are feeling emotionally numb? Please share those strategies here as they may help others who are struggling.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."