Emotionally Numb, No Emotions, Blunted Emotions And Anxiety

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated October 13, 2021

feel numb emotionally anxiety

Feeling emotionally numb, like your emotions have somehow become blunted, or that you have no emotions at all are common symptoms of anxiety disorder.

Many anxious, depressed, and stressed people experience feeling emotionally numb. It’s also a common symptom associated with sleep problems, such as insomnia.

Common symptom descriptions:

  • You feel numb emotionally as if you have no emotions at all.
  • Your emotions feel blunted like nothing causes a rise in any emotion.
  • You feel devoid of emotions, where no matter what happens, you have no emotions whatsoever, neither positive or negative.
  • You feel like you are detached from your emotional self.
  • You feel emotionally “blah” about everything.
  • It seems like you don’t care about anything anymore, including the things you know you should care about.
  • Some people describe this symptom as feeling no emotions, devoid of emotion, or disconnected from all their normal emotions.
  • Others describe this symptom as feeling emotionally disconnected from loved ones, the things they used to love and care about, and themselves. Some people describe this symptom as feeling emotionally “black,” as if everything in life lacks emotion.
  • This feeling can be about both positive and negative emotions.
  • It can also feel like you are bored with everything and have lost your zest for life.
  • Others describe it as being emotionless or “lifeless.”

Feeling emotionally numb can occur occasionally, frequently, or all the time.

It can also occur with other symptoms or by itself.

Feeling emotionally numb can occur any time, including “out of the blue” and for no apparent reason.

This common anxiety symptom can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. It can also come in waves where it feels strong one moment and not the next.

Feeling emotionally numb can change from day to day and from moment to moment.

All the above combinations and variations are common.

This symptom can seem more disconcerting when undistracted, resting, doing deep relaxation, trying to go to sleep, or when waking up.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test, Anxiety Disorder Test, or Hyperstimulation Test.

The higher the rating, the more likely anxiety could be contributing to or causing your anxiety symptoms, including emotional numbness.

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Causes

Medical Advisory

There are many ways anxiety can cause emotional numbness. Here are some of the most common:

1. The stress response

Anxious behavior, such as worry, activates the stress response, causing many body-wide changes that prepare the body for immediate action – to either fight or flee.[1][2]

Visit our “Stress Response” article for more information about the many changes caused by the stress response.

One of these changes includes altering brain function by increasing activity in the fear center of the brain (amygdala and others) so that we’re more sensitive and reactive to danger and decreasing activity in the rationalization areas of the brain (cortex and others) so that we don’t remain in danger while trying to figure things out.

Since the amygdala is a part of the Limbic System, primarily responsible for emotion responsiveness, increased fear reactivity by the amygdala can suppress our emotions, making them feel flat, lifeless, and disconnected.

The higher the degree of stress response, the more dramatic the change.

Moreover, since fear can be traumatic, some people dissociate from traumatic experiences to protect themselves psychologically and emotionally. Dissociation can flatten emotions, causing emotional numbness.

Visit the “Dissociation” anxiety disorder symptom for more information about this common experience.

Any one or combination of these factors can cause a feeling of being emotionally numb when anxious and a stress response has been activated, especially those in the high to very high degree ranges.

2. Hyperstimulation (chronic stress)

Since stress responses push the body beyond its balance point, stress responses stress the body. As such, anxiety stresses the body.

When stress and anxiety occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the changes caused by the stress response.

When stress and anxiety occur too frequently, such as from overly apprehensive behavior, the body can remain in a state of semi-stress response readiness we call “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are powerful stimulants.[3][4][5]

Visit our “Hyperstimulation” article for more information about the many ways hyperstimulation can affect how we feel.

Hyperstimulation (chronic stress) can cause all kinds of emotional symptoms, including flattening our emotions. Here are some of the reasons why:

The Limbic System

The Limbic System, which includes the amygdala, supports many functions, such as adrenaline flow, behavior, long-term memory, motivation, and our emotional life.[6]

The Limbic System is stimulated by stress.[6] As the degree of stress increases, so does Limbic System activity.

When the Limbic System becomes chronically stressed, our emotions can flatten. Feeling emotionally numb and devoid of emotions is a common indication of an overly stimulated Limbic System.

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Stress hormones affect other hormones

Hormones, such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins, often referred to as our “feel good” hormones, play an important role in our emotional well-being.

Since stress hormones affect other hormones, including causing a reduction in our “feel good” hormones, chronic stress can cause many emotional symptoms,[7] including emotional numbness.

Chronic stress is a common cause of feeling emotionless.

Cortisol insensitivity

Cortisol is a powerful stress hormone stimulant that can create energized, focused, and emotionally upbeat feelings.

However, chronic activation of the stress response can reduce cortisol sensitivity,[8] causing feelings of lethargy, muddled thinking, and emotional numbness.

Chronic stress is a common cause of cortisol insensitivity and lifeless emotions.

Fatigue

Stress quickly drains the body’s energy. Chronic stress (hyperstimulation) can tax the body so much that it becomes exhausted.

Fatigue can flatten emotions, making them feel numb.

As long as the body is exhausted, it can feel as if we have no emotions.

Fatigue is a common cause of feeling emotionally and physically numb.

Sleep deprivation

Chronic stress (hyperstimulation) is a common cause of sleep problems. A lack of regular good sleep can cause sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation affects the reasoning (prefrontal cortex) and emotional (amygdala) parts of the brain.[9]

Research has shown the first signs of sleep deprivation are unstable and dull emotions.

Sleep deprivation is a common cause of feeling emotionally numb.

These are just a few of the ways anxiety, stress, and chronic stress can affect our emotions, including causing emotional numbness.

There are other factors to consider, as well:

3. Medication

Medications, prescription and over-the-counter, can also affect mood because of how they affect brain function.[10] Side effects of medications are another common cause of feeling emotionally numb.

More specifically, SSRI antidepressants can cause emotional indifference as a side effect.[11] Many people taking SSRI antidepressants report feel emotionally flat, lifeless, and without emotion.

4. Behavior

Research has shown a tight mind and body connection. Since our emotions are primarily caused by how we think, and since the body's physical health can influence how we think, our emotions are caused by a complex combination of biological and psychological factors.

We mentioned some of the biological factors earlier.

Some of the psychological factors that influence our emotions include our beliefs, preferences, attitudes, how we behave (think and act), and habituated patterns of behavior.

Dr. David Burns coined the phrase, “We feel how we think,” meaning our thinking drives our emotions.[12] If we behave in anxious and depressed ways, that can affect our emotions, including creating feelings of being emotionally numb.

For instance, feeling down and blue or trapped and helpless can elicit feeling emotionally lifeless.

Because the states of our physical and psychological health influence each other – our psychological well-being can influence our physiological well-being, and vice versa – many variables influence our emotions.

Nevertheless, when the body and mind are healthy, we typically experience emotions within the “normal” range of stability and predictability. But if the body, mind, or both become unhealthy, our emotions can suffer.

This symptom really scared me (Jim Folk) when I first experienced it. My emotions were so numb, flat, disconnected, and unusual, I feared I was on the verge of a complete mental and emotional breakdown. As you know, fearing your symptoms and what you think they could do only makes things worse.

Unfortunately, this is a common scenario for many anxious people. In fact, many anxious people place a high value on how they feel emotionally (often referred to as “emotional reasoning”).

When a person worries about feeling emotionless, it doesn’t take long to become more symptomatic and concerned, fueling the entire anxiety disorder problem.

The good news is that while this symptom can be unsettling, it isn’t harmful and generally isn’t an indication of something more serious.

Feeling emotionally numb is just another symptom of anxious behavior, stress, and chronic stress (hyperstimulation).

Normal emotions return when you faithfully practice your recovery strategies and have given your body sufficient time to recover.

5. Other factors

Other factors can cause and aggravate emotional symptoms, including:

Select the relevant link for more information.

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Treatment

When emotional numbness is caused or aggravated by other factors, such as recreational drugs, stimulants, hyper and hypoventilation, low blood sugar, nutritional deficiencies, dehydration, hormone changes, or pain, addressing those factors can reduce and eliminate this anxiety symptom.

When this symptom is caused by anxious behavior and an active stress response, calming yourself down will end the stress response and its changes. As your body recovers from the active stress response, this anxiety symptom should subside.

Keep in mind it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. But this is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

When this symptom is caused by fatigue or sleep disruption (insomnia), reducing stress can bring a return to good sleep.

When emotional numbness is caused by side effects of medication, talk with your doctor or pharmacist. Sometimes a dosage change can help, and other times, switching to a different medication can help.

When this symptom is caused by stress and chronic stress, reducing stress and increasing rest will restore the body’s energy. As normal energy returns, feeling emotionally numb will subside as normal emotions return.

When emotional numbness is caused by behavior, addressing the behaviors causing anxiety or depression can restore healthy emotions in time.

Working with an experienced therapist is the most effective way to address the unhealthy behavior that causes anxiety and depression issues and the symptoms they create, such as feeling emotionally numb.[13][14][15]

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Short-term Remedies

Even though eliminating stress and chronic stress (hyperstimulation) will eliminate this symptom, some people have found the following strategies can help reduce emotional symptoms, including emotional numbness.

However, keep in mind that each person can have a unique symptom experience since each person is somewhat physically, chemically, psychologically, and emotionally unique. What might work for one person might not for another.

  • Reduce stress – Since all anxiety symptoms are stress-related, reducing stress can alleviate this symptom. There are many ways to reduce stress. You can read many natural stress reduction strategies in Chapter 14.
  • Regular good sleep – Getting good sleep each night (6.5 to 8 hours per night) can significantly reduce stress, which can improve all anxiety symptoms, including feeling emotionally numb.
  • Regular deep relaxation – Regular deep relaxation is a great way to reduce stress and overall stimulation. As stress and stimulation diminish, so will anxiety symptoms, including this one.
  • Regular light to moderate exercise – Regular exercise is proven to reduce stress and improve stress symptoms. However, we don’t recommend strenuous exercise since it stresses the body.
  • Catnap – Research has found catnaps can rest the body and nervous system, quickly restore energy, and improve cognitive performance. Catnaps are a quick and easy way to assist with recovery and symptom elimination.
  • Go for a leisure walk – Leisure walking is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety symptoms and loosen tight muscles due to hyperstimulation. Even short walks of 10 minutes can help reduce some anxiety symptoms, including this one.
  • Warm bath – Warm baths relax the body and nervous system, which can help ease emotional symptoms as the nervous system rests.
  • Massage – Massage can help the body and nervous system relax, reducing nervous system activity and stimulation.
  • Listen to soothing music – Listening to soothing music can help the mind, body, and nervous system relax.
  • Leisure swim – Leisure swimming can help the body and nervous system relax. Many people find water therapy helps reduce stress and its symptoms, including emotional symptoms.
  • Float on a water device – Lying on an inflatable water raft can be soothing and relaxing, and so can leisurely floating in a boat. Some people find the gentle rocking of the waves enjoyable and relaxing.
  • Spend time in nature – Research shows that spending 15 minutes in nature dramatically reduces stress and cortisol. A reduction in stress and cortisol can cause a reduction in symptoms of stress, including emotional symptoms.
  • Enjoy a hobby – Research has shown that spending time with your hobby also dramatically reduces stress. A reduction in stress can reduce symptoms of stress, including emotional symptoms.
  • Don't react to this symptom – Reacting to emotional symptoms with angst, frustration, anger, and bewilderment stresses the body, which can interfere with stress reduction and symptom elimination. Not reacting (such as via Containment) can help the nervous system disengage and relax, fostering recovery and symptom elimination.

Visit our article “60 Natural Ways To Reduce Stress” for more ideas on stress reduction. Or, Recovery Support members can visit Chapter 14 for many more natural and practical ways to reduce stress.

The Recovery Support area has much more in-depth information about overcoming anxiety disorder, its symptoms, fears often associated with anxiety disorder, and so much more.

For instance, we explain important recovery concepts such as:

  • Containment.
  • The importance of passive acceptance.
  • Common challenges of overcoming chronic stress and its symptoms.
  • How to extinguish fears.
  • How to overcome stubborn symptoms and fears.
  • How to overcome panic disorder.
  • How to overcome a fear of anxiety and the strong feelings associated with anxiety.
  • How to resolve anxiety sleep-related problems.
  • Many other important anxiety disorder recovery concepts, tips, and strategies.

Click the link below to learn more about Recovery Support membership options.

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Prevalence

Emotional numbness is a common anxiety symptom. For instance, in an online poll we conducted, over 75 percent of respondents said they experienced emotional numbness due to their struggle with anxiety.

FAQ

Is emotional numbness dangerous?

No, emotional numbness caused by anxiety, stress, chronic stress, fatigue, or sleep disruption is not dangerous. It will subside when the cause has been rectified.

Is feeling emotionally numb caused by a serious mental illness?

No, emotional numbness caused by anxiety, stress, chronic stress, fatigue, or sleep disruption is not caused by a serious mental illness. Addressing the cause will eliminate this symptom.

Can feeling emotionally numb lead to a more serious mental illness?

No, emotional numbness caused by anxiety, stress, chronic stress, fatigue, or sleep disruption will not lead to a more serious mental illness. Addressing the cause will eliminate this symptom.

Can anxiety cause emotional numbness?

Yes, anxiety can cause emotionally numb symptoms. For instance, anxiety causes stress, and stress can impact our emotions, including causing them to feel numb. We explain this in more detail earlier in this article.

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our anxiety disorders signs and symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Feel Numb Emotionally, Emotional Numbness.

References

1. Selye H. Endocrine reactions during stress. Anesthesia & Analgesia. 1956;35:182–193. [PubMed]

2. "Understanding the Stress Response - Harvard Health." Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.

3. Elbers, Jorina, et al. "Wired for Threat: Clinical Features of Nervous System Dysregulation in 80 Children." Pediatric Neurology, Dec 2018,/p>

4. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015.

5. Kumar, Anil, et al. "Stress: Neurobiology, consequences and management." Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences, Apr 2013.

6. Bear,Connors, Paradiso (2016). Neuroscience: Exploring the brain - Fourth Edition. In The Mechanisms of Emotion (pp. 621 - 643). New York, NY: Wolters Kluwer

7. Ranabir, Salam, and Reetu, K. "Stress and hormones." Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Mar 2011.

8. Hannibal, Kara, and Bishop, Mark. "Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation." Physical Therapy, Dec 2014.

9. Saghir, Zahid, et al. "The Amygdala, Sleep Debt, Sleep Deprivation, and the Emotion of Anger: A Possible Connection?" Cureus, 10 July 2018.

10. Pringle, Abbie, and Harmer, Catherine. "The effects of drugs on human models of emotional processing: an account of antidepressant drug treatment." Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 17 Dec 2015.

11. Sansone, Randy, and Sansone, Lori. "SSRI-Induced Indifference." Psychiatry, Oct 2010.

12. Burns, David. "The Feeling Good Handbook." Rev. ed. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Plume, 1999.

13. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012.

14. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017.

15. DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.