13 Signs You’re Struggling With Emotional Numbness (The Secret Illness)

 March 01, 2018

13 Signs You’re Struggling With Emotional Numbness (The Secret Illness)

The combination of having a British father and a mother who was traumatized by her own emotionally unstable mother – on top of an oppressive fundamentalist religion – led to grooming me as a stoic and “stable” person who was taught that expressing emotions was not only bad but shameful.

As you can see, sometimes there are numerous factors in play which may contribute to your inability to regulate intense emotions, and therefore resort to unconsciously numbing them. In my case, I learned that strong emotions = punishment in one form or another, and so I learned that they were dangerous to experience.

The danger of disconnecting from your emotions is that it can lead to a host of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual issues. Such issues may include dysfunctional coping mechanisms (obsessive compulsions), mild to severe depression, spiritual emptiness, inability to enjoy life, inability to form close and fulfilling relationships, disconnection from inner self, confusion, irritability, fatigue, addictions, chronic illnesses, and somatic illnesses (illnesses produced by the mind).

In extreme cases (and I’m talking about situations where emotional contact is nil), emotional numbness can lead to acts of cruelty.


I call emotional numbness the secret illness because it is so pervasive in our society, and so socially acceptable, that it often flies underneath the radar. In a society that largely doesn’t know how to handle strong emotions in healthy ways, being stoic and “level-headed” is valued – yet this very same calm and collected facade often conceals unhealthy detachment from one’s feelings. Thus, emotional numbness is a secret illness because so many of us struggle with it, yet don’t even realize that we have it until chronic issues start emerging.


Emotional detachment is not always a bad thing. It comes in handy when you need to maintain boundaries, avoid undesired energy overload from others, and even help others in crisis situations. But emotional detachment turns into its unhealthy twin, emotional numbness, when it becomes an automatic inner defense mechanism.

“What’s so great about feeling strong emotions?” you might ask. The answer is that without feeling our emotions, we don’t have the capacity to live and learn from them, experience the beauty and depth of life, and learn to ultimately transcend attachment to them (which is part of spiritual enlightenment).

Here are some of the most significant signs of emotional numbness that you should look out for:

  • Inability to express strong negative or positive emotions
  • Inability to “fully participate” in life (i.e. feeling like you’re a passive observer)
  • Feeling that life is like a dream (a sense unreality)
  • Living on autopilot
  • Lack of interest in activities others find enjoyable
  • Feeling distant from others
  • Tendency to withdraw from friends and family members
  • Emotions are only felt in the body as sensations, but not by the mind
  • Dislike of people who express strong emotions (both positive and negative)
  • Not feeling anything in situations that would usually generate strong emotion
  • Panic or terror when strong emotions eventually break through
  • Feeling empty inside
  • Physical and emotional numbness or “flatness”

In extreme circumstances (such as in PTSD sufferers), emotional numbness may even influence the desire to commit suicide. If you are considering suicide, please seek out support immediately (click here to locate your country’s suicide hotline).


Like any psychological defense mechanism, emotional numbing can be complex to deal with, and often requires support from a trained professional such as a therapist. If you feel that emotional numbness is significantly impairing your life, please do an act of self-compassion and seek out support either locally or online (there are even free counseling services such as 7cups).

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