• Strong emotions can be unsettling, but so can the lack of them

  • Therapist Georgina Sturmer explores numbness, where it might come from, and how you can become unstuck

  • We have counsellors and therapists available to help you here

In counselling, we’re all about the feelings. How are you feeling? What are you feeling? How does that make you feel now? 

But this isn’t always easy. Sometimes we just don’t feel anything at all. Let’s look at what numbness feels like, why it can make life difficult. And how you can work to overcome it. 

What does ‘numbness’ feel like?

As with all feelings, numbness can feel different to different people. Your version of happy might feel different from my version of happy. Your version of sadness might feel different from my version of sadness. And so it is for numbness too.  

In my mind, numbness feels like being stuck in a state of anaesthesia. As if something is stopping us from experiencing life to the full. There’s a technical term ‘anhedonia’, which is the inability to experience pleasure. Numbness can feel like the inability to experience life in general. 

Why does it make life difficult?

If we feel numb, we might not feel anger or sadness, but we also miss out on experiencing the full range of everyday life experiences. Happiness, excitement, energy, motivation, and so on.  

If we feel numb then we often feel stuck or trapped. This isn’t a problem if things in life are moving along. But if we are stuck in a challenging situation or a difficult relationship then it can make it really hard for us to make decisions or change things.  

If we’re feeling numb we might struggle to connect with other people in social situations. This can lead to feelings of isolation.  

What causes ‘numbness’? It could be a whole range of things:

  • Unprocessed trauma. This is a fancy way of saying that sometimes things happen to us, and we don’t have a chance to explore or express our feelings. These feelings can become buried or stuck, as if they’re underneath a layer of numbness. 
  • Fear of being vulnerable or overwhelmed. It can be scary to consider opening a can of worms about how we feel. 
  • Messages that we have absorbed from our family or community that have encouraged us to suppress our feelings. Maybe we’ve been told to have a ‘stiff upper lip’ or that ‘boys don’t cry’. Perhaps we’ve learnt that some feelings are ‘bad’ such as sadness, frustration, anger or envy. These messages become embedded, and they block us from our feelings. 
  • Always putting others before ourselves. Selflessness can be an attractive quality. But it might also indicate that we are disconnected from what we need or what we want. Or that we don’t feel that we deserve to have our needs met. This can make it difficult to acknowledge our feelings. 
  • Stress. Mental or physical exhaustion from work, or other commitments, can leave us feeling overwhelmed. When this happens, we often disconnect from our emotions.

Tips for overcoming numbness

1. Notice the numbness

Strange as it may sound, I would encourage you to begin to tune in to how you feel. 

Do you notice patterns? Is it constant or does it change at different times or in response to different triggers? Could you scale it from 1 to 10? Is it accompanied by bodily sensations, any changes in your breathing? Once we notice something, we can be curious about it. 

2. Notice how you feel about making choices

If we’re feeling numb it can be difficult for us to put ourselves first. This reflects in how we make choices – even right down to what we want to choose from a restaurant menu. 

3. Recognise that there aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feelings, just human emotion

Just because we feel sad or angry or frustrated, that doesn’t mean that we are somehow negative or bad. 

4. Seek out safe opportunities to explore past experiences or relationships

In counselling, you can be supported to carefully open up and release feelings that you have been suppressing. Or use a journal or another creative outlet to explore feelings that you might not want to name. 

5. Think about self-care and your basic needs

Good quality sleep, exercise and nutrition play a role in looking after our mind and our body. 

Find opportunities to connect with the outside world and with other people, and to stimulate your senses. It might be a walk outdoors, or a catch up with an old friend, or a TV programme that makes you laugh out loud. 

Georgina Sturmer is a verified Welldoing therapist in Hertfordshire and online

Further reading

Watching horrors abroad: the impact of vicarious trauma

Why do we get triggered and what can be done about it?

Trauma responses: understanding your window of tolerance

Why can't I control my feelings?