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4 Steps to Beat “Emotional Numbing” for Peak Decision-Making and Optimal Living
Madelaine Claire Weiss, LICSW, MBA, BCC -- MIndOverMatters Madelaine Claire Weiss, LICSW, MBA, BCC -- MIndOverMatters
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Washington, DC
Monday, December 20, 2021


Table of Contents

Decisions Require Emotions

If you are one the many who think that decision-making should not be emotional, think again.

Beginning with the Psych 101 study of Phineas Gage’s brain, study after study has since shown that—injury to the part of the brain that integrates cognition and emotion reduces both the ability to feel emotion and the optimality of decisions.

Even when the brain damaged patients were conscious of the risk or futility of their decision, they made it anyway because emotional wisdom and guidance was absent from the equation. For example:

Participants with vmPFC injuries repeatedly select a riskier financial option over a safer one, even to the point of bankruptcy—despite their cognitive understanding of the sub-optimality of their choices.

People are making decisions all day long every day, decisions that shape their lives, without realizing how emotionally numb they might be and what damage this absence of emotion can cause in their lives. Oh, and not just in their lives, but the lives of everyone they touch.

One emotionally numb client realized that, in avoiding her own emotion, she avoided her daughter’s emotion too. When my client was finally able to cry for herself and her daughter, she could move closer to her daughter, which is helping over time to turn things around. Other clients have reported a similar result once they were able to thaw out.

So, what is emotional numbing? What are its many causes? And how can we revive the emotions so vital to our own lives, and the lives of those we love.

What is Emotional Numbing?

Not all emotional numbing is caused by a spike to the brain. Emotional numbing is also an adaptive strategy hardwired into the brain to help us survive the pain of the many physical and emotional challenges our species has had to endure.

Emotional numbing is a coping strategy available to us all. As only one example, the numbing or denial that occurs after a major loss allows us to take in the painful reality in doses small and manageable enough that we are not completely overwhelmed. That is a good thing.

But when emotional freezing (fight, flight, freeze stress response) becomes a habitual and chronic response to stress of all kind and degree, then we have the kind of emotional numbing that can run and ruin your life.

And, how do we know that we may be in emotional numbness? From mental health and fitness expert, Sara Lindberg, the symptoms of emotional numbness can include:

  • Experiencing an inability to fully participate in life
  • Failing to access your feelings
  • Feeling distant or detached from others
  • Feeling flat, both physically and emotionally
  • Having difficulty with experiencing positive feelings such as happiness
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Preferring isolation rather than being with others

People with emotional numbness might use strategies to resist confronting their emotions. Even if they’re doing it unconsciously, they might use avoidant behaviors and steer clear of certain people or situations. They might be in denial, which is a common defense mechanism people use to avoid emotional triggers and negative feelings.

People more commonly describe the experience as empty, or flat, with an awareness of being unable to be happy or sad about much of anything they believe so called normal people might.

What Causes Emotional Numbing?

It is not clear to me from the literature how much we inherit our emotionality or lack thereof. It is also not clear whether it is culturally determined—although it is easy to imagine that if our culture and/or family models ‘stiff upper lip’ coping, it could be hard to know how to do much of anything else.

That said, Dr. Bobbi Wegner has written that brain injuries, hormonal imbalances, neurological issues, medications, PTSD, depression, dementia, substance abuse disorders…can all be associated with emotional numbing.

Other triggers include grief, physical or emotional pain, physical, emotional, or mental abuse, and overwhelming stress.

Wait, if nothing else, overwhelming stress? Who hasn’t been there done that, for one reason or another these days, or at least know someone who has? I could not find a statistic on the prevalence of emotional numbing, but I did find that 75% of Americans were experiencing moderate to high levels of stress.

Not everyone responds the same way under stress. Seems likely though that, in our culture especially, a fair number will go numb to hold it together and keep from falling apart.

That actually can work if all we aim to accomplish is a calmer façade. But, given the likelihood of decision-making impairment and relationship damage associated with emotional numbing, the approach is not without its high potential cost to the overall and long-term quality of life.

How to Restore Vibrant Life and Living

So, how can we stay in touch with our humanity without becoming overwhelmed by it? How can our decisions and relationships benefit by the emotional guidance available inside of us all?

  1. Your Physician

First things first. With so many possible causes, the first stop for anyone experiencing emotional numbness is to consult with your physician to rule out anything requiring medical attention.

  1. Other Professionals

It could also help to talk with a professional about healing whatever might be the cause of the emotional shutdown, instead of focusing only on the symptoms. Words of caution here: 1) sometimes well-meaning professionals get stuck in the past with their clients, digging the emotional hole even deeper rather than helping their clients to dig out, and 2) sometimes a single cause cannot be found.

Beyond knowing the cause, and certainly rather than getting stuck in it, there is still much that people can do to get in touch with themselves and their feelings in useful and comforting ways.

  1. Self-Care

Eat well, sleep well, keep good company with family and friends, exercise your body and mind… I know, easier said than done. Just do it. Make these high priorities, to help you with everything else.

Mindfulness exercises can be found, complimentary, on my website at https://madelaineweiss.com/

The “Power Breathing” exercise, especially, is simple to do and can help a lot both by 1) kicking your decision-making upstairs to the executive brain, and 2) by keeping you present for the ones you love who are troubled by your emotional numbing, freezing up, and drifting away.

Another nice way to thaw out is to simply connect with sensations in the body accompanying feelings as they begin to occur. People feel what they are feeling in their bodies (heart, lungs, neck, abdomen…) and it can be comforting and healing to simply place one’s attention and maybe even one’s hand there.

  1. Revitalizing Exercise

Psychotherapist, Imi Lo, offers this great exercise she calls “Working With Your Shield” for people who may feel empty and detached (also a feeling, by the way, I agree.)

She begins with a suggestion to move away from blaming and shaming oneself for having locked one’s heart away, in favor of compassion for the self and the underlying sadness from which one might be trying to detach.

The exercise then helps to visualize the wall or shield of protection, and finally to thank it for its years of service, explaining how it is not quite needed in the same way anymore.

Here are Dr. Lo’s instructions:

  • If your emotional numbness is a wall or a shield, how thick is it?
  • What kind of materials would it be made of? Metal, wood, or plastic? How dense or heavy is it? 
  • When you touch your wall/shield, does it feel warm or cold? 
  • Does it change according to your life circumstances or energy level, or does it remain stuck and static?
  • If your wall/shield has a voice, what is it saying?

One woman’s response: It is a beautiful, shiny, full body, gold shield, consistently room temperature to the touch. When asked to speak, the shield said, “Look, I know you love how I look and how I keep the fleas away, but I’m heavy to lug around, waste of energy, and since you don’t really need to wear me as much as you do, how about you only put me on whenever you really think you need me. No worries, no hard feelings, I could use a break anyway. Have fun. I’ll be fine.

Your turn? Try this out and let us know…and warm wishes for the holidays,


Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

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Name: Madelaine Claire Weiss
Group: MindOverMatters, LLC
Dateline: Washington, DC United States
Direct Phone: 202-285-8644
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