Healing After Trauma

Stopping the Cycle of Pain

Why Do You Go Emotionally Numb When Others Talk To You?

Ann, not her real name, knew she had done it again. One minute she was arguing with her partner and the next she felt emotionally numb. This infuriated then depressed her partner. Nothing she did seemed to help Ann snap out of it and neither she nor Ann understood why she had such a strong reaction.

Ann later described to me what had happened. It often followed an argument and it was as though she had suddenly moved deeply into a “cave.” When she was in this cave, she had no appetite, sleep was difficult and her movements slowed. Household tasks she could manage were limited to the bare essentials. Her speech was monotone and eye contact with her partner was minimal. She felt insecure and worried that her partner would abandon her. Usually quite gregarious, Ann seemed to have no capacity to reach out to others. Making herself think through this problem seemed out of the question.

Perhaps you have observed similar reactions in yourself. Like Ann, you were left bewildered and struggling to know why and how you went away and what you can do about it. You knew your partner had not intended to harm you or cause such a big reaction.

What Happens When You Go Emotionally Numb?

When you are emotionally numb your nervous system is so overwhelmed you have little motivation to reach out to others and you are unable to respond to others in your normal fashion. Your usuall way of talking to others shuts down.

Most likely, the emotional numbing indicates that your nervous system has gone into survival mode. When you are in survival mode, your biology has three options: to fight, to flee or to freeze. The emotional expressions of the fight and flight responses are often anger and anxiety, respectively. Freeze, on the other hand, often gives rise to emotional numbing. Becoming numb is not a conscious choice; it is a survival strategy.

Why Would You Go Emotionally Numb?

Becoming emotionally numb is a form of self-protection in face of a perceived threat that seems very dangerous or even life threatening. Note that I say “perceived threat”. What the other speaker may be saying may not be intended to be threatening, but, from you point of view, there is something about it that IS threatening. You may not be conscious of the real threat because it is often tucked away in history.

If your reaction to a dangerous or scary situation that had happened in the past is still unresolved, your nervous system could get “fooled” into acting as though what you are hearing now is threatening. This may happen with certain topics, people, manner of speaking or intensity of emotions. There is enough similarity between what happened in the past and the present conversation that your nervous system will continue to protect you by going emotionally numb. That way you do not have to feel the earlier painful emotions like terror, loss and shame.

Why Would You Want to Resolve A Threat That Happened In the Past?

Your nervous system is designed to resolve threats by following a specific biological sequence. This is possible regardless of how long ago the threat happened. If you do not complete this process, the emotional freeze that you felt as a result of a real past threat can still be trapped in the body.

When threats from the past are not resolved, you may not recognize that what is being said is not really threatening. If you react inappropriately, the speaker who intends no harm, may withdraw. This in turn can worsen the feelings of fear, loss or shame that you already are holding inside from something done or said in the past. Resolving what happened in the past when there really was a threat can increase the likelihood that you will be able to recognize the good intentions of the other speaker.

How Do You Come Out of Emotional Numbness?

There are several steps you can take to move out of emotional numbness. The first six steps I describe below focus on what you can do immediately to help you move out of emotional numbness. Step number seven suggests a way to actually resolve the threat from the past.

Step 1. Be kind to yourself. Appreciate that most likely you became numb as way to protect yourself and you to do not have to be ashamed of this. If you had been able to control yourself and not go numb you would have.

Step 2. To minimize isolation from the other speaker, let the other person know that your reaction may not be totally due to what they said and that you may want to resume the conversation when you are feeling better.

Step 3. Ask someone whom you trust to check in on you occasionally and for a brief conversation. This may also help to diminish your sense of isolation.

Step 4. Suspend making any major decisions until you no longer feel numb. Making decisions can sometimes benefit from being informed by how you feel emotionally.

Step 5. If you have the responsibility for caring for others such as young children consider asking others for help. Your numbness may frighten someone too young to understand why you are withdrawn.

Step 6. Engage in an activity that has been pleasurable in the past. While you may not feel very enthusiastic, doing something that has brought you enjoyment can help calm your nervous system.

Step 7. Seek the support of a therapist who understands how a threatening experience affects your nervous system and how to resolve the threat from the past. By working directly with your physiology it is possible to resolve threats that happened in the past, even if you don’t remember the details. She can help you move from an emotional freeze and into a successful flight or fight response followed by relaxation and a state of emotional availability. By working at just the right pace, you will discover that something that what may seem to be scary initially can be quite doable and not overwhelming.

But Wait…

I seem to go emotionally numb a lot. I haven’t figured out why this happens. Will this approach help me?

Many people have experienced multiple threats and can be triggered easily into an emotionally numb state by a variety of different situations. By working with your physiology, your nervous system will get stronger. A stronger or more resilient nervous system will help you to feel better without having to review each past threat.

When I go numb, my spouse gets scared. I believe him when he says he does not want to hurt me. What can I do to help him?

Pick a time when you are not emotionally numb and explain to him how you go numb to protect yourself. Let him know that you are most likely reacting to something from the past. Give him some suggestions about what could help you when you are numb. These may include asking him to check in with you occasionally and asking him to do something that will reassure you that he still cares about you.

I have been in therapy for a number of years. I know what happened to me as a kid, but I still go emotionally numb when my friend talks to me. I wonder if more therapy can help?

Many therapeutic models focus on helping you understand what happened in the past then encourage you to find different ways to think about those events. This has limited usefulness. Threat happens to the body and disrupts your ability to be relaxed in non-threatening situations. It is essential that attention be given to your physiological responses in order to really resolve how your past continues to affect you now. It is rare that threat resolves by simply changing the way you think or act.

What Happened To Ann?

When I first saw Ann she had found ways to cope when she became emotionally numb when she talked to her partner. While knowing how to cope was helpful, she came to me to seek support in working with her past. She suspected that an unhappy marriage and the loss of her children contributed to her reactions with her partner.

Some of the ways we worked included:

· exploring what calmed her nervous system. One print on the wall in my office had this effect. Her breathing became deeper and slower. When she trusted that she could observe how she could regulate her system this way, she was ready to look at the past.

· inviting her to share small portions of her history, beginning with the least charged memories. This allowed her system to tolerate remembering the past without being overwhelmed.

· encouraging her to pay attention to body sensations and naming the emotions that accompanied them. In one session, after she had become familiar and trusting of the process of paying attention to her body, she tracked how her chest became tight. Because she could do this without being frozen, she was able to identify the sensation as an expression of anger. This was followed by a wave of heat throughout her torso. The heat indicated that she was releasing a lot of the charge of a disturbing memory. With less energy trapped in history, she told me the next week that she felt excited to be alive again.

Over the course of several months, Ann’s emotional numbness lessened significantly. In addition, if someone expressed strong feelings in a conversation, which in the past would have led to her becoming numb, she could more easily realize what was happening and settle her nervous system before she became emotionally frozen. As she came to know more of her history and was able to discharge the pain of it, becoming emotionally numb happened very infrequently. She simply did not need to protect herself that way any more.

In Summary

1. When you become emotionally numb when you talk to someone, who is really not threatening, your nervous system is often reacting to something that happened in the past that was scary or hurtful.

2. Your painful history can continue to affect you emotionally until you have resolved the threat from the past.

3. If you become emotionally numb while talking to someone who means you no harm, be kind to yourself. This may mean you suspend making important decisions or asking others to help you with your responsibilities until you feel more like yourself.

4. Seek the support of a professional counselor who understands how to work with your nervous system to resolve the threat from the past that is triggering the emotional numbness.

Next Step?

If you and your partner would like additional support when you become emotionally numb, consider working with a therapist who works with couples and who understands how overwhelming threats affect the nervous system. Couples’ therapy can help you and a your partner develop strategies to minimize what triggers you to become numb and to help both of you to find ways to stay connected to each other when you become numb. Individual therapy can help you resolve the effects from the past. I will be happy to provide you with referrals.

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