Anxiety Symptom #5: Emotional Numbness, Lightheadedness and Depersonalization
It can be a very scary experience when your mind numbs out your emotions in a desperate attempt to drown out your panic and anxiety. You become a spectator of your own life, detached from the world around you. Your words, your actions are all happening on autopilot and all you can do is watch and drift along with it.
Emotional numbness is a state of low consciousness caused by severe anxiety. It’s your brain’s way to prevent mental breakdown by dimming out – and sometimes even shutting down – sensory inputs.
And why do you have to go through all that?
It’s to prevent the overload of negative emotions.
That’s really at the heart of this anxiety symptom.
What You’ll Learn
So in this post you’re going to learn about the anxiety symptom commonly called “emotional numbness,” or “lightheadedness.”
However, if you Google those words, you might not find exactly what you’re looking for. And the reason is because the actual psychological term for feeling emotionally numbed is something else.
The actual psychological terms that describe anxiety-induced emotional numbness are “depersonalization,” “derealization” and “dissociation.”
So in today’s post you’ll learn:
- What the anxiety symptom “emotional numbness” is
- How anxiety can numb out your emotions
- 6 specific ways you can snap out of emotional numbness
What It’s Like to Feel Emotionally Numb because of Anxiety
Have you ever felt like you’re trapped in a fog while your mind is in overdrive? Your focus is shattered into a million tiny pieces and it’s scattered all over the place.
You feel like you have neither the power, nor the desire to control your mind.
It’s like you’re behind a thick wall of glass that blocks out most of the noise from the outside world. You hear what they’re saying but it doesn’t make you feel anything. You see what they’re doing but you feel disinterested and too tired to care.
You feel like you're trapped in a stranger's body.
It’s almost like you’re in your mother’s womb again. You feel strangely safe and secure behind a protective wall of flesh. You can hear some of the noise of the outside world but it doesn’t matter to you. Right now you’re in a comfortable, safe place and the things from outside can’t reach you in here.
Yes, you’re going to be born soon. You’re about to be thrust into a world full of strangers, harsh noises, violent sensations and exhausting passion. But for now, everything is as it should be. You don’t have to do anything.
You’re in a safe place now where they can’t reach you…
It’s just like watching a movie in third person. All the things you see, hear, touch, smell and taste just seem unreal.
Your clouded mind is unhinged from reality and you feel like you’re in a movie or a video game. It’s like you’re on autopilot; your actions are scripted and rehearsed. They happen on their own, without your input.
You seem to remember what it’s like to feel strongly about things… to feel passionate and emotionally invested in things. But right now you’re too tired to emotionally attach to anything.
If you can relate to any of this, then you’ve experienced emotional numbness caused by anxiety in the past.
Let’s Take a Look under the Hood: Depersonalization, Derealization and Dissociation
As I mentioned earlier, when you search the internet for the term “emotional numbness,” you won’t always find what you’re looking for.
And that’s because the official medical term for this anxiety symptom is what I collectively call the 3D’s: Depersonalization, Derealization and Dissociation.
“But what do these words even mean?”
Well, all three of these big words describe something similar. They talk about a state of mind that makes you feel emotionally numb, as though you’re detached from reality.
Dissociation means you’re detached from physical and emotional experiences. Or to put it another way, your emotions are not engaged by your environment.
Derealization means that you feel as though you’re in a dream. There is a disconnect between your senses and reality. You don’t quite feel the things that you know you should be feeling.
For example, you may have felt strongly about your significant other yesterday; but today you just can’t find those strong feelings anymore. You can only hope that they’ll resurface tomorrow… but you can’t be certain.
You’re emotions are fleeting, popping in and out of existence. It's every bit as scary as it sounds.
You know what’s going on around you; the information gets through to you but that’s all there is. The usual genuine feelings that you would feel are gone.
It’s as if there’s a barrier between what’s happening outside of you and what actually gets through your senses.
And finally, depersonalization just means that you’re looking at the world from inside your body but you’re not part of what you see. You’re a spectator of the world, looking at it from a third person view. You feel strangely distant from your environment, like you don’t belong.
You fee light-headed and hollow inside. Almost like a ghost or a robot on auto-pilot.
“Emotional Numbness” - What’s In It for You?
So why would anxiety produce a symptom like emotional numbness? How is that beneficial to you? I mean it must serve some specific purpose or it wouldn't have evolved in the first place.
Well, let me explain.
Believe it or not there’s actually huge evolutionary benefit to being emotionally numb in an overwhelmingly stressful situation. And your mind not only knows that, it has been practicing it all your life. You just haven't noticed.
I mean just think about it.
When you turn the volume down on your emotions, the world suddenly seems like a pretty picture that you can look at from inside your head. You’re not bombarded by unpleasant emotions.
At the end of the day, you’re in a safe place, right?
By dimming out all those cumbersome negative emotions, your brain ensures that you have some time to cool down your system and recover both mentally and physically.
When you distance yourself from your environment emotionally, you gain this weird outside perspective on things, like you’re zooming out where negative emotions can’t reach you anymore.
The bottom line is, becoming emotionally numb is a coping mechanism of the mind.
When your mind thinks that there’s an overflow of negative emotions coming in, and they may be potentially too much for you to handle, what it does is, it tunes you out.
And it's for your own good.
Because if it didn’t tune you out, your psyche could actually be damaged by the unending torrent of negative emotions.
Physical Pain and Emotional Pain Activate the Same Parts of the Brain
So why would your brain do something so extreme just to protect you from uncomfortable feelings?
Well, the reason is that psychological pain and physical pain activate similar brain regions.
For the brain, there is no difference between painful feelings and pain caused by physical injury.
In fact, your brain would numb out physical pain of a severe physical injury the same way.
And that’s actually awesome.
It numbs the pain for you so that you can make rational decisions, help yourself or get some help from someone else.
Let me share with you a personal story about that.
Several years ago, the brother of a good friend had been hit by a car standing in a bus stop one morning. The car hit him and smashed him against the concrete wall on the other side of the sidewalk. As a result of the collision, he was lying helplessly on the ground, losing a lot of blood very quickly.
Fortunately, someone immediately called the ambulance and he was taken to the hospital and after a 12 hour long surgery, his condition was stablizied.
Later on, when everything was over and he was on his way to a full recovery, someone in the family asked him how much he felt after the car had hit him.
To everybody’s surprise, he said he didn’t feel anything.
He was unable to feel the pain.
His mind numbed the excruciating pain out for him to protect his sanity.
And once again, physical and psychological pain is almost the same as far as the brain is concerned.
When you’re experiencing overwhelming emotional stress, be it fear, humiliation, shame, anger, or a combination of these, your mind will simply tune out to avoid any psychological damage.
If your mind can’t fight the relentless onslaught of negative feelings, or it can’t escape from the traumatic experience, it will just shut down sensory input to prevent an overload of negative emotions.
And when you stop to think about it, it makes perfect sense.
Any traumatic experience that makes you experience a sudden burst of negative emotions can lead to a mental breakdown.
The good news is, your brain has a built-in coping mechanism when that’s about to happen. It short-circuits the traumatic experience by dimming your senses.
Numbing your emotions at a critical time prevents mental breakdown, it stops excruciating pain and ultimately, it keeps you sane and in control of your actions.
The Risks of Emotional Numbness
Emotional numbness is very useful emergency tool for when you’re overwhelmed by severe anxiety.
But at the same time, you don’t really want to live your life out of touch with your emotions. Here’s just a few reasons why:
Driving With a Dissociated Mind
For one, it’s very dangerous to drive with a dissociated mind. I don’t think I need to explain why driving in a dream-like state is a bad idea, right?
While you’re sitting behind the steering wheel, you want to make sure that you’re aware of your surroundings, you’re alert and you’re focused on what’s ahead of you.
But when you’re lightheaded and your senses are clouded, you aren’t going to be able to do that. And that’s incredibly dangerous.
Emotional Numbness is Addictive
Like most coping mechanisms of the mind, emotional numbness is addictive.
It is addictive because it works. And as far as your brain goes, as long as it works, it’s the best tool for the job.
But is detaching from physical and emotional experiences really the best way to cope with emotional stress?
Well, in some cases yes and in some cases no. Let's take a closer look.
Emotional Numbness Caused by Trauma
For example, if you’re being abused as a child and you have no way of fighting or fleeing the abuser, then tuning out is the only way to protect your mind from trauma.
So yes; in this case it's an effective coping mechanism. Why? Because you don't have any other way to cope.
If you only have one tool in your toolbox, then that's the best tool for the job.
Emotional Numbness Caused by Anxiety
But what if you’re an adult and you’re afraid of rejection?
Let’s say the idea of your significant other rejecting you freaks you out. And so you’re constantly worried about them leaving you for someone else.
In a situation like that, in order to protect your from that fear of getting rejected, your mind might pull some strings in the background and distance you from your significant other by numbing out your emotions of love and affection towards them.
Because after all, one way to avoid rejection is by not attaching in the first place, right?
So you start feeling uncomfortable to be intimate with them. You start feeling weird when they touch you.
You know you love them, you remember the feeling, but you don’t feel it anymore.
So numbing your emotions can turn into this coping mechanism that you instinctively use to protect yourself from any kind of emotional stress.
Not just trauma – for which it evolved originally – but any negative emotion.
And if your mind starts doing it every single time you’re under emotional stress, even if you have better ways to cope, it can become a huge issue down the line.
6 Ways to Reconnect with Your Feelings
Even though numbing your emotions is a very powerful coping mechanism, you’ll need to learn to control it so it doesn’t interfere with your daily life.
You need to find better tools to cope with negative emotions and anxiety than shutting down all your emotions.
And to get started, you need to learn how to snap out of emotional numbness caused by anxiety.
To give you an idea of how to do that, I’ve compiled a short list of my 6 best techniques to revive your feelings and snap you out of depersonalization.
#1 Get Inside Your Own Body
When anxiety numbs your emotions, it makes you live your life inside your head. You become detached from your senses and your feelings.
Here’s 3 ways to get inside your body, re-energize your senses and awaken your feelings.
Tony Schwartz, the brilliant author of the book The Power of Full Engagement taught me that
"the best way of emotional recovery is getting your heart rate up."
So my first advice to reset your emotions is doing a quick burst of intensive cardio exercise.
I usually do a quick skipping rope session and knock myself out with that but it can be sprinting, or any other form of intensive exercise that gets your heart rate up quickly.
So why am I telling you to exercise? You’re not trying to learn how to lose weight; you’re trying to find out how to snap out of emotional numbness caused by anxiety.
Well, let me explain.
It all comes down to engaging your body in an activity that pushes you over your comfort zone. You want to feel something different. You want to engage your senses in something new that they haven’t felt in a while.
And high intensity cardio training is an excellent way to do that. That’s a very powerful way of emotional recovery that will get you out of your head and wake you up to physical experiences.
It engages your senses because you start sweating, your heart starts pounding and you get tired in a good, healthy way.
These new sensations will be powerful enough to penetrate your mind’s barrier and reach you inside your head!
#2 Minor Illnesses
Interestingly, another excellent way to get yourself back into your body is to fully experience a minor illness.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you to get sick on purpose. And I’m not talking about any serious disease, either, obviously.
But we all have these minor illnesses throughout our lives; we catch a cold every now and then, we accidentally pull a muscle during exercise and so on and so forth.
But for the most part, we just think of these “discomforts” as a nuisance, something we want to get behind us quickly and move on with our lives.
So what I invite you to do is, the next time you catch a cold or pull a muscle, pay attention to all the sensations in your body. Take your time and go into your pain; experience the discomfort. Notice what changes inside of your body.
Listen to how your body is trying to communicate with you through all those uncomfortable sensations.
Is your nose running? Is your skin cold to the touch? Maybe your forehead is warmer than usual.
Just like short bursts of high intensity exercise, a minor illness can make you aware of your body in a profound way and help you get out of your head.
Another way to snap out of emotional numbness caused by anxiety is making love.
I hope you didn’t think I was going to gloss over this one...
In my opinion, sex is the ultimate physical experience. It will revitalize your emotions like nothing else. And it can be a pretty enjoyable source of high intensity cardio exercise, too.
And just in general, when it comes to anxiety symptoms, sex is arguably the number one cure.
According to WebMD, making love releases a chemical called oxytocin that creates feelings of pleasure and reward in your brain.
Interestingly, that chemical seems to fire even if you only see the face of your significant other.
So making love takes this powerful experience of pleasure and reward to the next level and wakes you up to the mind-blowing physical sensations your body is capable of.
#2 Pinch Yourself
Now this one is pretty simple, it takes literally no time at all and you can do it anywhere.
My grandma used to tell me that if I’m dreaming and I can’t tell whether I’m awake or not, I should pinch myself.
She said if I can feel it, I’m awake. If I can’t, then I’m asleep and I’m dreaming.
The same trick works for when you’re in a state of emotional numbness since it’s a very dream-like state.
Pinching yourself works like a “wake-up slap.” By experiencing a swift surge of minor pain, your attention is immediately magnetized to the source of it.
And so this pain suddenly becomes your anchor to “reality.” Obviously you can use any strong physical sensations to be your anchor. You could wash your face with ice cold water, or drink a hot cup tea.
Pinching yourself is just an example, you can use any technique that works for you.
#3 Drink Less Alcohol and Coffee
Substances like alcohol and nicotine can put a strain on your system.
On the one hand, coffee can mess with your level of alertness and drain your energy levels dry.
Alcohol on the other hand can numb out certain physical sensations in your body. Which is why alcohol was used as an anesthetic in the past.
So what do they have to do with emotional numbness caused by anxiety?
Well, in the case of alcohol, it’s pretty obvious.
When anxiety makes you feel lightheaded, just like you’re in a dream, and you have difficulty connecting to reality, the last thing you want is consume a substance that numbs out physical sensations in your body.
Oh yeah, and hangovers will propel your anxiety levels through the roof. Need I say more?
On the other hand, the problem with coffee is that it exhausts your energy reserves.
Whenever you drink coffee, you’re usually tired and you want a quick boost of alertness.
And dhere’s nothing wrong with that but when you’re dealing with an anxiety symptom such as emotional numbness, it just makes everything worse.
And here’s why.
The reason that your mind chose to numb out feelings to begin with was because it needed a break. It just couldn’t handle the overload of negative emotions.
So essentially your system’s energy reserves are running low and it’s signaling that it needs some time to recover.
But by drinking coffee, you’re energizing your body even more, denying it the rest that it’s begging you for.
So if you’re dealing with any anxiety symptom, and especially numb feelings, your first priority should be staying away from alcohol and caffeine.
#4 Enjoy High Quality Rest
It sort of follows from point I made about caffeine that you need to make sure you rest a good 7 to 8 hours a day. And not just any kind of rest but high quality rest.
And what I mean by that is undisturbed sleep at night.
And the number one thing that can rob you of your well-deserved Z’s is noise. It doesn’t even have to be loud. Sometimes it can be as subtle as a ticking clock. As long as your exhausted mind is aware of it, it’s going to keep you awake.
So if you know that your spouse or your children are going to be making noises after you go to bed, you know, the sound of their footsteps, their chatter - whatever it is they’re doing that you can hear and keep you awake, make sure you don’t hear it once your head hits the pillow.
I’m personally a big fan of earplugs. I think they do a really good job of blocking out any unwelcome noise that your family is making while you’re trying to fall sleep. It’s definitely a tool that will help you enjoy a better quality sleep.
I mean you could try and get everyone else to calm down but that’s like herding cats so you're probably better off going with a set of earplugs instead.
The other thing that can disturb your sleep is light. Light is what your body naturally responds to by waking you up. Light makes you aware of your surroundings. It stops the secretion of the hormone melatonin, also called the sleep hormone. That’s the chemical in your body that's responsible for making you sleepy.
Light means it’s time to wake up.
So when you’re trying to get a high quality rest, you want to make sure that you’re sleeping in a dark place where light can’t penetrate. The first thing you want to do is make sure you turn off your smart phone, your tablet, your PC about 30 minutes before going to bed.
What those bright screens do is they emit a bunch of light at your face and into your eyes. It tricks your brain into thinking that you’re sitting in broad daylight and ultimately it’s going to wake you up.
The second thing you can do to make sure you sleep in complete darkness is wear an eye mask. It’s cheap, it’s small and it’s really comfortable.
Because sometimes you just can’t turn off all the lights around you. Like if you have a street lamp right outside your window and the light finds its way into your room no matter what, just put on your trusty eye mask for the night and you’re all set.
So to recap quickly, a high quality rest allows you to recharge your system naturally. And that in turn, will make you more resilient to anxiety-triggering events the next day. As a rule of thumb, the better you sleep, the better you cope.
#5 Get Out Of Your Head!
Anxiety makes you ruminate about yourself. A lot. It puts you in this mindset where you’re constantly scrutinizing everything you’re doing.
It makes you critical of yourself in a profound way. In an attempt to fix yourself, you’re constantly engaged in introspection. You’re analyzing yourself all the time and guessing what others may or may not be thinking about you.
This “in your head” mentality is fuel to anxiety.
The more time you spend in your head, detached from the present moment and “out” of your body, the more you feed your anxiety.
So what you need to do to prevent this is you need to become aware of it. You need to learn to catch yourself when you’re withdrawn into your head and locked up in a third person view of the world.
Notice it; label it for what it is, and then challenge yourself using logic.
Ask yourself if what you’re doing is rational. If what you’re doing makes sense.
Imagine your best friend doing what you’re doing right now. What would you tell them? How would you comfort them?
Now say the same things to yourself and comfort yourself just as if you were trying to support your best friend.
#6 Find Your Way Back Into Your Body: Get Grounded
Now that you’re out of your head, it’s time to get back into your body. You’re going to do that by re-engaging your emotions.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, being grounded in yourself is a huge challenge.
Your mind numbs out your emotions to protect you from them. Therefore, re-engaging your emotions means tackling those very things that your mind is trying to shield you from.
And that doesn’t sound like a pleasant thing to do, right?
Well, it’s actually pretty easy to do if you know what you’re doing.
First of all, you want to start out by taking baby steps.
To start, try doing something you enjoy for just 5 minutes. It can be anything. Any household chore, an errand, whatever it is that makes you feel good.
The only difference is, this time, pay attention to your physical surroundings. Notice where you are; the shape of the room, the color of the walls. Look around and appreciate the scents and the sounds.
How do they make you feel? Gently start listening to your feelings.
If you feel uncomfortable, stop whatever it is that you’re doing and try something else. Your goal is to find something that you don’t feel bad about. Once you have that, you gradually turn your attention outside of yourself by noticing your environment object by object, sensation by sensation.
With this exercise you train your mind to notice and appreciate what’s outside of you instead of getting locked up in an endless cycle of introspection.
Wrapping It Up
Emotional numbness is a coping mechanism of the brain.
It’s a mental technique that your brain uses to drown out the panic, the anxiety and the terror by putting you on autopilot and shielding you from further psychological pain.
And while that’s a great thing, you don’t want to rely on this mechanism too much, because it is going to interfere with your daily life. You need to learn different ways to gently re-engage your emotions and expose yourself emotionally to the world outside of you.
Like anything else, this is a skill that you can develop. You just need to practice it and get better at it.
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