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What Causes Emotional Numbness?

author image Lia Stannard
Lia Stannard has been writing about women’s health since 2006. She has her Bachelor of Science in neuroscience and is pursuing a doctorate in clinical health psychology.
What Causes Emotional Numbness?
Woman staring into the distance while laying on a hammock. Photo Credit Jed Share/Kaoru Share/Blend Images/Getty Images


When people feel emotionally numb, they can feel emotionally disconnected from a situation—for example, a person in a sad situation who does not feel like crying. Emotional numbness can also cause a person to feel hopeless about her future. Different psychological conditions or reactions to certain events can cause emotional numbness.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When people experience a traumatic event, such as war, sexual assault or a natural disaster, the trauma can affect them emotionally. Some survivors of trauma may develop a type of anxiety disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Patients may have intrusive memories, like flashbacks, that remind them about the event. If the flashback is extremely vivid, the patient can react emotionally. The Mayo Clinic explains that two types of emotional responses can occur with PTSD: emotional numbing and emotional arousal, such as becoming easily startled. During the emotional numbness stage, patients may avoid thinking about the traumatic event. PTSD patients may have difficulty maintaining close relationships. Problems with concentration and memory can also occur when PTSD patients become emotionally numb.

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Gustavus Adolphus College points out that 7 to 12 percent of men and 20 to 25 percent of women have depression, which is a mood disorder. Depression causes changes to a patient's emotional state. Many depression patients become sad and having crying spells, and depression can also cause patients to feel emotionally numb. During depression, patients can have diminished pleasure in activities they used to enjoy. They may feel isolated and unworthy of love or avoid other people. Depression patients may have unnecessary guilt and low self-esteem. Thinking can become affected by depression, resulting in difficulty making decisions or concentrating. Patients may also think of themselves critically, putting themselves down. New Mexico State University notes that some people may cut themselves as a way to cope with the emotional numbness.


When people lose loved ones, they experience grief. California State University Northridge notes that between 5 and 10 percent of people experience grieving at any given time. During the first stage of grief—shock and avoidance—people can feel emotionally numb. This emotional numbness can last one to two weeks after learning about a loss. People may disbelieve that the event occurred. The emotional numbness goes away by the second stage of grief, acute grieving, when people become emotionally aware of the loss.


Stress is a normal part of life, but when it becomes overwhelming and starts affecting a person emotionally, emotional numbness can develop. The emotional stress can result from conflicts at home—such as relationship problems—or at work—for example, poor reviews. As a result, emotionally stressed people may become apathetic, use more alcohol or drugs, have difficulty making decisions and sleep more than usual. The Cleveland Clinic explains that some people may hurt themselves in response to the emotional numbness and overwhelming stress.

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