Emotional numbness is often used as a coping mechanism that can be necessary to protect us psychologically from traumatic events. It has helped many people survive adverse childhood experiences – however this can later damage their ability to build healthy relationships and complicate the need to access emotions for healing in the future.
Kirsty*, (name changed for anonymity) studying nursing (mental health), explains her experience of dealing with her own childhood trauma.
What did the feeling of emotional numbness feel like for you?
Squeeze any person hard enough and they will disappear. We instinctively have three responses to trauma – fight, flight, or dissociation. For me, it was the third of these. I couldn’t become interested in anything or anyone and I could never escape this feeling of feeling cut off. It was a vicious cycle which I was strangely always on the outside of.
If we are frightened as a child or spent much of our time feeling threatened, an unconscious response is to ‘switch off’.
How does switching off from childhood traumas affect you now, as an adult?
It is sort of like growing up with a magnetic field around you – but you’re constantly trying to put 2 blue ends together that are always repelling. As you grow older, trying to comprehend ‘why’ is difficult as you watch other people form strong bonds with friends and romantic partners.
The biggest problem for me was this: Although I couldn’t feel any real sadness, it meant I couldn’t allow myself to feel any moments of happiness either. Everything was just dull.
Excessive anger can become a normal response to people who are ‘emotionally numb’ when they are exposed to threat or things that remind them of their childhood angst, even unconsciously.
Repressing my emotions and experiences was exhausting. I was just consistently tired or trying to counteract this ‘deadness’ with anything that would make me feel something; excessive smoking, drinking or dangerous sports.
Physically I was really unwell too – headaches, bloating, hormonal imbalances, amongst other things which had no apparent reason behind them. Numerous trips to the doctors and test after test showed nothing.
How did you overcome it?
Slowly, very slowly. Uncovering any childhood adversities can sort of feel like taking the lid of a shaken bottle. All at once and it’ll just make a huge mess, slowly release the pressure and you will eventually be able to take the lid of – with no mess.
The very nature of trauma is overwhelming, and it can leave your body in a constant state of fear. It’s about re-finding safety, building a secure environment and making meaningful connections with the people around you.
We need to promote the idea that investment in early action is just that – an investment – just like investment in our physical infrastructure. And that it yields a long term return at least as good, if not better than, roads and railways.’