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5 Reasons Why People May Feel Nothing

Dissociative states can be terrifying and protective. 

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Think of the times that you felt flooded with feelings—intense emotions such as joy, sadness, love, or fear. Such feelings can be electrifying. As they flow through you, they pack a powerful punch. They can deepen your empathy, keep you emotionally attuned to yourself and others, and guide you through good times and bad.

But what happens when you look inward and find nothing? What happens when you don't know what you're feeling?

What do you do then?

When Feelings Are Blocked Off

Many of us experience moments when we suddenly feel numb or apathetic:

“I went blank."

“I couldn’t feel anything.”

“I felt dead inside.”

This is especially troubling when you find yourself in situations that normally produce strong emotional responses, such as holiday celebrations, weddings, or memorials. When you can’t identify your feelings, it's not unusual to experience shame or even question your humanity: “What’s wrong with me?” you may wonder. “Why can’t I feel anything? Am I a psychopath?”

When the Body Switches to Survival Mode

When you can’t feel your emotions, you’re likely to be in a dissociative state. This frequently occurs when people are overwhelmed, and the body switches to survival mode, resulting in numbness or blankness. “Not feeling” is also a protective psychic defense during a time of crisis. (See The Body Keeps the Score, a wonderful book about trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.)

Here are five common causes of dissociation:

  1. Trauma. Trauma comes in many forms. It can be a life-altering event, like the death of a loved one. Or an accident, injury, or illness. Traumatic events can be far more subtle for children, such as being bullied at school or facing a classroom humiliation. During such events, feelings go numb, and the trauma is stored away in the body until the time is right to process it. (See "How to Recover When Life Crushes You")
  2. Clinical depression. The longer you feel depressed, the more trouble you have identifying your feelings. A heaviness takes over, emotions are dulled, and you experience life through a haze of indifference.
  3. Crippling anxiety. When anxiety becomes a dominant force in your life, it tends to rob you of other emotions by keeping you in a state of constant fear and tension.
  4. Drug and alcohol abuse. A friend once told me that he lost ten years of memories due to his drug and alcohol abuse. Blackout episodes and memory loss not only rob you of feelings, but can also make you treat loved ones with cold indifference.
  5. Tragedy. Unlike trauma, tragedy is driven primarily by loss. The bigger the loss, the more difficulty you may have knowing your feelings. For instance, many people are upset when they can’t cry at a funeral. They stare off into the distance or sleepwalk through the services. At such times of profound grief, dissociative states are common.

Recovering Lost Feelings

Frequently in therapy, people recover lost feelings. When you feel safe and out of danger, your defenses start to come down, and buried feelings begin to emerge. This process can’t be rushed; lost feelings only reemerge when you’re ready. To force someone to feel something before they are ready can result in considerable harm. Always remember, everyone heals at a different pace.

As you begin to regain feelings and express them, a sense of relief takes hold, as if a weight has lifted off your shoulders. Even if the reactivated feelings are painful, you find yourself rejoicing; you're finally free of the burden of carrying them. (See "Traits That Breed Hopelessness and How to Create Hope")

How to Reactivate Feelings

If you find yourself in a dissociative state, try the following steps:

  1. Take a deep breath. People in dissociative states tend to hold their breath, sending their bodies into a panic. Remind yourself to breathe; in fact, help yourself to some nice gulps. Deep breathing brings fresh oxygen to your blood and raises your metabolism so you can focus and make better decisions.
  2. Step away. When possible, give yourself a time out. Step away and clear your head before you become impulsive or reactive. Think about your options, and then make a mindful choice.
  3. Move your body. The body tends to freeze up during dissociation. Shake off tension through exercise. Be creative: Use music or dance to get yourself moving.
  4. Stimulate your other senses. I worked with a young woman who told me that she would pause when she felt a dissociative episode coming on and take a shower. For her, a shower was a chance to reboot her feelings and reflect. Other people find eating, journaling, drawing, or listening to music effectively disrupt dissociation.
  5. Talk to someone. Pick up the phone, call a friend, dialogue with someone. Healthy relationships are always a stabilizing force and the best way to find your way back to yourself.

For more, see "7 Hurts That Don't Heal and Three Ways to Cope"

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