Empty Feeling And Anxiety

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated February 18, 2022

empty feeling anxiety disorder symptom

Empty Feeling, feeling like your thoughts and emotions are empty and lifeless, is a common symptom of anxiety disorder, including anxiety and panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and feeling empty psychologically and emotionally.

Empty Feeling Common Symptom Descriptions

This symptom is often described as:

  • Feeling like you are mentally and physically hollow inside.
  • It feels like your thoughts or emotions (or both) are numb, lifeless.
  • It feels like while you can still feel some things physically, your thoughts, emotions, or other physical feelings are nonexistent.
  • Some say their “head feels hollow,” as if there are no chemicals inside.
  • Some say that while they can feel their physical body, they feel nothing psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually.
  • Some people say they “feel like all the life has gone out of them.”
  • Some people say it feels like their brain has shut down.
  • Others say they feel like a “hollow shell” of a person.
  • It can also feel like your physical body is just going through the motions and that your psychological, emotional, or spiritual life has completely disappeared.
  • It’s also described as feeling like your thoughts and emotions have been anesthetized.
  • Overall, this symptom is most often described as having lifeless, “empty thoughts and emotions.”

This symptom can affect one aspect of your being (physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual), many aspects of your being, or all parts of your being at the same time. This symptom can also change where one aspect is added to or replaced by a different aspect. You can also have changing combinations.

This symptom can occur occasionally, frequently, or persistently.

It can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms or occur by itself.

This symptom can precede, accompany, or follow a period of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and stress, or occur "out of the blue" and for no apparent reason.

It can also range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe and come in waves where it feels strong one moment and then subsides the next.

This symptom can change from day to day, moment to moment, or remain as a constant background during your struggle with anxiety disorder.

All combinations and variations of the above are common.

This symptom can seem more disconcerting when undistracted, resting, trying to sleep, waking up, or have more time to think.

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 feeling like impending doom symptoms.

---------- Advertisement - Article Continues Below ----------


---------- Advertisement Ends ----------

Causes

Medical Advisory

Talk to your doctor about all new, changing, persistent, and returning symptoms as some medical conditions and medications can cause anxiety-like symptoms.

Click the link for Additional Medical Advisory Information.

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.

This survival reaction is often referred to as the fight or flight response, the emergency response, the fight, flight, or freeze response (some people freeze when they are afraid like a “deer caught in headlights”), or the fight, flight, freeze, or faint response (since some people faint when they are afraid).[1][2]

Visit our “Stress Response” article for more information about its many changes.

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.

The amygdala is part of the Limbic System, primarily responsible for emotional responsiveness. The Cortex is primarily responsible for executive functions, such as rationalization.

Since stress responses can dramatically affect both, our emotions and cognitive function can become suppressed, causing an acute “empty feeling.”

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

Moreover, since fear can be traumatic, some people dissociate from traumatic experiences to protect themselves psychologically and emotionally. Dissociation can flatten emotions and cognitive awareness, causing an “empty feeling.”

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

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’t complete recovery.

Incomplete recovery can leave the body 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 the body and how we feel.

Hyperstimulation (chronic stress) can cause all kinds of emotional and psychological symptoms, including flattening emotions and cognitive function. 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.

Hyperstimulation can dramatically affect cognitive function

As mentioned, stress responses can suppress the rationalization areas of the brain, causing a reduction in cognitive function.

A reduction in cognitive function can cause thought, concentration, memory, and self-awareness problems, creating all sorts of thinking and internalizing symptoms.

As long as the body is hyperstimulated, these types of symptoms can become chronic.

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 “emptiness.”

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, memory problems, self-awareness problems, and emotional numbness.

Chronic stress is a common cause of cortisol insensitivity and feeling “lifeless” and “empty.”

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, and can dull our thought-life, making our being feel hollow and “empty.”

As long as the body is fatigued, we can feel “empty” and like a “shell of a person.”

Fatigue can also be caused by recovery. As your recovery efforts cause a reduction in hyperstimulation, circulating stress hormone levels diminish, which can also cause fatigue.

Feeling exhausted and psychologically and emotionally numb is a common indication of the later stages of recovery.

Fatigue is a common cause of feeling physically, emotionally, and psychologically 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 psychological and emotional impairment.

Sleep deprivation is a common cause of feeling psychologically and emotionally “flat” and “lifeless.”

These are just a few of the ways anxiety, stress, and chronic stress can cause an “empty” feeling.

There are other factors to consider, as well:

3. Medication

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

More specifically, psychotropic medications can cause psychological and emotional indifference as a side effect.[11] For instance, many people taking SSRI antidepressants report feel psychologically and emotionally flat, lifeless, and “empty.”

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 psychologically and emotionally “empty” and 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 how we feel.

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

Dissociation

As mentioned, some people dissociate when afraid – mentally and emotionally separate themselves from an experience – especially with threats in the high to very high degree range.

Dissociation can not only occur during a stress response, it can also become a behavioral issue – where a person regularly dissociates from certain thoughts and emotions that arose during a previous traumatic experience.

Chronic dissociation is another cause of feeling “empty.”

Any combination of the above factors can cause and contribute to emotional numbness.

We also have to keep in mind that psychological and emotional symptoms can combine into many combinations during a struggle with anxiety disorder, and those combinations can change and shift over time.

For instance, hyperstimulation can cause emotional numbness without difficulty thinking one time and then cause them together at another time.

Memory problems can occur by itself for a time but then be combined with emotional flipping at another time. And so on.

Any combination of psychological and emotional symptoms can occur due to hyperstimulation.

This doesn’t mean that the combination of symptoms is a different symptom, but that the combination of symptoms makes it seem like a distinct symptom.

Again, any combination of psychological and emotional symptoms can occur, making it seem like a different of distinct symptoms when it isn’t.

Overall, feeling “empty” is just another symptom of anxious behavior, stress, and chronic stress (hyperstimulation).

Normal feelings return when you address the behavioral cause and hyperstimulation.

---------- Advertisement - Article Continues Below ----------


---------- Advertisement Ends ----------

5. Other Factors

Other factors can create stress and aggravate this anxiety symptom, including:

Select the relevant link for more information.

---------- Advertisement - Article Continues Below ----------


---------- Advertisement Ends ----------

Treatment

When other factors cause or aggravate this anxiety symptom, addressing the specific factor(s) can reduce and cause this anxiety symptom to subside.

When an active stress response causes this symptom, ending the active stress response will end this symptom.

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

When hyperstimulation (chronic stress) causes psychologically and emotional emptiness, eliminating hyperstimulation will end this symptom.

You can eliminate hyperstimulation by:

  • Reducing stress.
  • Containing anxious behavior (since anxiety creates stress).
  • Regular deep relaxation.
  • Avoiding stimulants.
  • Regular light to moderate exercise.
  • Eating a healthy diet of whole and natural foods.
  • Passively accepting your symptoms until they subside.
  • Being patient as your body recovers.

Visit our “60 Natural Ways To Reduce Stress” article for more ways to reduce stress.

Recovery Support members can view chapters 5, 6, 7, 14 and more for more detailed information about recovering from hyperstimulation and anxiety disorder.

As the body recovers from hyperstimulation, it stops sending symptoms, including this one.

Symptoms of chronic stress subside as the body regains its normal, non-hyperstimulated health.

But eliminating hyperstimulation can take much longer than most people think, causing symptoms to linger as long as the body is even slightly hyperstimulated.

Even so, since this is a symptom of chronic stress (hyperstimulation), it's harmless and needn't cause concern.

Anxiety symptoms often linger because:

  • The body is still being stressed (from stressful circumstances or anxious behavior).
  • Your stress hasn't diminished enough or for long enough.
  • Your body hasn't completed its recovery work.

Addressing the reason for lingering symptoms will allow the body to recover.

Most often, lingering anxiety symptoms ONLY remain because of the above reasons. They AREN'T a sign of a more serious medical problem.

Chronic anxiety symptoms subside when hyperstimulation is eliminated. As the body recovers and stabilizes, all chronic anxiety symptoms will slowly diminish and eventually disappear.

Since worrying and becoming upset about anxiety symptoms create stress, these behaviors can interfere with recovery.

Passively accepting your symptoms while doing your recovery work will cause their cessation in time. Passive acceptance means not reacting to, resisting, or worrying about your symptoms.

Acceptance, practice, and patience are key to recovery.

Keep in mind that it can take a long time for the body to recover from the effects of hyperstimulation. It's best to faithfully work at your recovery despite the lack of apparent progress.

If you persevere with your recovery work, you will succeed.

You also have to do your recovery work FIRST before your body can recover. The cumulative effects of your recovery work will produce results down the road. And, the body's stimulation has to diminish before symptoms can subside.

  • Faithfully practicing your recovery strategies.
  • Passively accepting your symptoms.
  • Containing anxious behavior.
  • Being patient.

These will bring results in time.

When you do the right work, the body has to recover!

---------- Advertisement - Article Continues Below ----------


---------- Advertisement Ends ----------

Therapy

Unidentified and unaddressed underlying factors cause issues with anxiety. As such, they are the primary reason why anxiety symptoms persist.[13][14][15]

Addressing your underlying factors (Level Two recovery) is most important if you want lasting success.

Addressing Level Two recovery can help you:

  • Contain anxious behavior.
  • Become unafraid of anxiety symptoms and the strong feelings of anxiety.
  • End anxiety symptoms.
  • Successfully address the underlying factors that so often cause issues with anxiety.
  • End what can feel like out-of-control worry.

All our recommended anxiety therapists have had anxiety disorder and overcame it. Their personal experience with anxiety disorder and their Master's Degree and above professional training gives them insight other therapists don't have.

If you want to achieve lasting success over anxiety disorder, any one of our recommended therapists would be a good choice.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to treat anxiety disorder.

In many cases, working with an experienced therapist is the only way to overcome stubborn anxiety.

---------- Advertisement - Article Continues Below ----------


---------- Advertisement Ends ----------

FAQ

Can anxiety make you feel empty?

Yes, many anxious people feel empty. There are many reasons for this such as chronic stress, physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, and caused by behavior, such as feeling hopeless and helpless.

Can feeling empty become permanent?

Stress and anxiety-caused emptiness can be eliminated by addressing the causes. Therefore, no, anxiety and stress-caused emptiness isn’t permanent. It subsides when we address our anxiety and stress issues.

What does emptiness feel like?

Emptiness can feel like you are psychologically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually numb, despondent, isolated, or lifeless. But you can get rid of this feeling by addressing the cause.

Does feeling empty mean I have a serious mental illness?

Typically, no. Anxiety and stress-caused emptiness isn’t a sign of serious mental illness. However, there are other causes of feeling empty. It’s wise to discuss this symptom with your doctor and mental health professional for more information.

Why does my brain feel empty?

Feeling empty is a common symptom of anxiety and stress. There are many causes such as chronic stress, overly anxious behavior, depressive behavior, fatigue, and sleep deprivation. There can be nutritional causes, as well.

Prevalence

Based on the online polls we’ve conducted, approximately 90 percent of anxious people feel “empty” at one time or another during their struggle with anxiety disorder.

---------- Advertisement - Article Continues Below ----------


---------- Advertisement Ends ----------

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 Feeling Psychologically and Emotionally Empty.

References

1. Berczi, Istvan. “Walter Cannon's ‘Fight or Flight Response’ - ‘Acute Stress Response.’” Walter Cannon's "Fight or Flight Response"  - "Acute Stress Response", 2017.

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.

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.