Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Wake Up and Smell the Roses: Conquer Emotional Numbness



Wake Up and Smell The Roses!  Conquer Emotional Numbness


Although I am a gardener and my psychology treatment office is Forest Garden, this article is not about flowers.  It’s about living life to the fullest and avoiding being stuck in the emotional desert of numbness.  I will continue the rose analogy, however, as I discuss this most important topic. Too many people feel like emotional robots these days and are not willing or able to engage in the ups and downs of life.  From my childhood I remember memorizing a phrase from Shakespeare about life “creeping in this petty pace from day to day until the last syllable of recorded time.” That’s what emotional numbness feels like, and my message to you is to avoid this pitfall.

What are the “roses” of emotional expression? Our capacity to feel the total range of emotions is part of our birthright as humans.  Experiencing joy in beauty and love, feeling the freedom of the wind as we walk in nature, drawing or painting, writing prose or poetry, feeling our bodies move freely in exercise, experiencing spiritual highs, discovering the deeper parts of yourself. I could go on but you understand about the positive parts of this message. Many roses come in intense colors as red for hot anger, but other difficult feelings can be sadness or fear. You’ll find that intensively and humanly expressed feelings come and go as the wind blows the clouds through the sky. You can be stuck in emotional numbness, but real feelings will dissipate as they are acknowledged and expressed.

What about the “thorns” of emotional numbness? Yes, there is a propensity for us to become fearful of expressing or even acknowledging our feelings and become stuck in emotional numbness. As emotions are sometimes uncomfortable, many of us are fearful of confronting our most powerful feelings and retreat into a world of numbness and suppression. In times of difficulty or conflict, it’s often attractive to deaden our pain by suppressing our feelings. When we feel overwhelmed, we may want to shut down and numb out. We believe we can’t handle the feelings so we give up. We may feel it’s too difficult to deal with feelings which may be volatile, so we try to withdraw, ignore, suppress or stuff our feelings. But the less you feel, the less alive you are. Your feelings connect you to the world around you. 

What are common ways of trying to control or avoid uncomfortable emotions through emotional numbing? The obvious symptom of emotional numbing is just trying to shut down and shut out uncomfortable emotions, disconnecting yourself from whatever you could be feeling in a situation. A related response is to overthink situations instead of feeling your emotional reactions, as if you had to choose between thinking and feeling.  Another common response is resorting to only one emotional response in order to avoid discomfort and expressing a wider range of feelings. For example some people use anger to ward off all feelings, especially emotions of love, anxiety or sadness while other people joke around to cover up feelings or insecurities.  Perhaps a less obvious response is resorting to distractions to avoid feelings with momentary pleasures such as food or drink, shopping, excessive gaming, texting, facebooking or Internet surfing. Many people retreat to psychiatric drugs which help them deaden anxiety and depression but also restrict access to pleasure. 


If you have been retreating into emotional numbness to try to cope with intense feelings or life difficulties, you will soon find yourself experiencing a myriad of negative stress symptoms such as lack of interest in pleasurable activities, feeling indifferent and disconnected from the world, experiencing withdrawal and avoidance, becoming irritable, anxious and depressed, experiencing symptoms such as fatigue and low energy, insomnia, colds and sickness.  Guess what?  Emotional numbing doesn’t work as a coping device except when you utilize brief periods of withdrawal to gather yourselves together and plan a coping strategy to deal with a life stress.  So emotional numbing will bring you only continued periods of distress instead of any real or lasting relief from your problems.  You end up not really knowing yourself and distancing yourself from others. Relationships with others will suffer as you become more emotionally isolated.  If you allow yourself to experience your emotions they will come and go more freely. Even the most painful or difficult feelings will subside


If you are a person who sometimes suppresses emotions, read this carefully and resolve to change your ways. When you allow yourself to experience your emotions, they will actually dissipate more easily. Even the most difficult or painful feelings can be resolved.  If you do suppress your emotions frequently to the extent that you become emotionally numb, there are many self-help books or activities that you can pursue. Any increases in emotional expression will provide immense benefits. My advice is to proceed as slowly as you need to feel comfortable. The tortoise can win the race! If your emotional problems appear too difficult or you find yourself emotionally stuck in dysfunctional emotional numbing, an obvious solution is to contact a therapist to will help you work through your feelings and problems gradually without emotional numbing.


I’ve discovered a beautiful meditation CD which will benefit all of us in moving through painful emotions and experiences and into a more positive and hopeful mindset:  “Awakening of the Heart Meditation” by Turiya Hanover which is available on iTunes, Amazon and her website.


The moral of the story is:  Wake up and Smell the Roses!