I am a female psychiatrist in a red state that, as of this morning, no longer allows legal abortions. Even with the expectation of today's announcement — we all knew the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade reversal was likely after last month's leak — my emotions didn't respond like someone prepared. They have run the gamut from sadness (like "crying in the airport" sadness) to anger to total numbness.
I expect my patients to react similarly, as this has been a behavior pattern recently. After events like the recent shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, it doesn't matter who I am talking to — friends, family, colleagues, or my patients — everyone seems to be having a similar experience.
Our talks go a little like this:
Me: How are you feeling with everything lately?
Them: I actually feel nothing. I feel numb.
Me: What do you mean by numb?
Them: When I watch the news and something else horrible happens, I have no response to it. How bad is that? I lose my rights, or kids are dying, and I don't seem to care.
That last part is where my patients are wrong. Numbness is not a sign of not caring or being "dead inside" — another comment I hear often. It is just another feeling. A natural response to the world we live in. And, a protective one at that.
Numbness is not a sign of not caring or being 'dead inside.' It is just another feeling. A natural response to the world we live in. And, a protective one at that.
—jessi gold, m.d.
When we are stressed — and let's face it, when have we not been stressed in the past few years — our brains will protect us by looking for a short-term solution to limit the flood of our strong (and often negative) feelings. Emotional numbness, similar to dissociation, is a way for us to psychologically escape when we can't actually run away. In other words, it's another way our fight or flight stress response manifests — only instead of running away from danger, we freeze. We know we can't escape the threatening situation (or we know we cannot change it or resolve it), so we detach to protect ourselves. It's our body's way of helping us cope in the moment.
I know I do this, especially when something happens in the world that my patients want to discuss. Even though I am present and listening intently, I'm also removed, numb so that I don't get flooded with my own reactions, which could interfere with my ability to do my job. I wish I wasn't used to this feeling, but the world of being a psychiatrist, particularly recently, is also about surviving emotionally so that I can still be there for others.
In the past few years, we have watched tragic events unfold far too often and have become habituated to them. One 2020 study published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution showed that exposure to one video of terrorism can trigger an emotional response, but exposure to multiple videos actually decreased a person's reaction to them. So, if we are constantly exposed to something (think: mass shootings, Covid-19 deaths), our emotional reactions will decrease over time to a point where it becomes almost imperceptible.
In fact, we may feel like we care less about the world, simply because it is harder for us to have empathy and emotional responses to repeated events. This concept is known as "psychological numbing." Paul Slovic, the psychologist who coined the term, has shown that feelings don't necessarily increase with more suffering. Instead, they actually plateau and eventually decrease. In other words, our empathy and compassion don't scale up. It is harder for us to empathize with two people instead of one — let alone higher numbers, which simply become statistics.
We also feel more negative emotions when large groups need our help, and to protect ourselves from those feelings, we again try to avoid them at all costs. You might think that you would react to a genocide or mass trauma with more compassion, but instead, it is often when it is felt the least. Thankfully, there is a way to prevent this compassion collapse or fade: If we try to experience our emotions, instead of downregulating them, we might be able to stop numbness from setting in. In other words, first acknowledge your numbness without judgment, and then, if possible, allow yourself to feel.
It's important to find a way to process tragedy. Focusing on an individual who was affected, rather than the whole group can help. Make sure to give yourself time and a safe space to experience all the feelings you are avoiding. You might also need to ground yourself and bring awareness to your body to get out of your dissociating head.
One of my favorite grounding techniques: name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. If that doesn't work for you, you can try progressive muscle relaxation by contracting and releasing all of your muscles one by one, including the little ones like your fingers and toes. Or, you can pull a Stranger Things and listen to your favorite song on repeat. I mean, if Kate Bush doesn't bring you back into your body, I'm not sure what will.
No matter what, it shouldn't feel like you are forcing it. It is, however, important to try, as numbness can have negative effects long-term, like an inability to feel positive emotions and an increased risk of depression and PTSD. However, in the short term, if you need to be numb, be numb. Turn off the news, get off social media, and give yourself a break. But, make sure to acknowledge why you're doing it: You are protecting yourself. You aren't unfeeling. You are just not feeling, and there is a difference.