I am writing this particular piece in two sections. The reason being emotional numbness is not only common, but many people use it as their coping mechanism. I don’t blame them because at times it is easier to escape into a magical world than face your pain as is.
But before I go on to describe emotional numbness I will discuss emotions and what is it that lets it hijack us into totally irrational beings. Why is it that we seek to escape the pain of our negative emotions?
We all go through moments in our life where things are not as we would want them to be. It could be a death in the family, a health diagnosis, sudden break up or financial crises. During such times we may respond with fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, anger, jealousy and sadness. How strongly you feel would depend on how attached you are and the suddenness of the experience. If your boundaries were flexible and you have given a 100 per cent of yourself to the situation, the pain will be unbearable.
When experiences are unexpected, we are overwhelmed with the emotions. This is precisely what prompts an escape into a world of fantasy. Emotional numbness could be initiated with dialogue such as ‘I have to bury myself in work’ or ‘I have no time for such feelings’ or more common is ‘I need a drink to deal with this one’.
The thing about feelings is that they are natural and meant to be felt. Like our breath that keeps us alive, feelings too are normal human experiences. It indicates that we are alive. The problem is not with the feeling but with how we are playing this in our minds. The explanation that accompanies our feeling is the troll. Our feelings express through our body as a sensation and nothing more. What we should ideally be feeling is a sensation that comes like a wave and leaves us after a while. It could be accompanied with tears and body pain.
Scientist have narrowed down the physical expressions of emotions (a wave-like sensation that passes through our body) to last for about 90 seconds. If you become aware of it and let it pass then it will go away.
The problem, however, is that we interpret it in our mind as being too anxious or too sad. And as long as we keep thinking about the emotion, it will persist. So technically speaking if you let your mind interpret the emotion for example, fear, then it will be a 90 plus 90 plus 90 plus 90 seconds and so on till actually it becomes a neural circuit which you have no control of and just like that you become a mess and find yourself panicking about irrational stuff.
Emotions are complex and can easily hijack you. What you need to know is that it is possible to free yourself from the impact of negative effects of your emotions. Self-talk for example: ‘I am not good enough’ or ‘I will never be able to do this’ or ‘once they know they will not think too highly of me’, or ‘it’s my karma’ or just about any negative self-talk that puts you in the loop has to be broken.
What you must understand is that emotions – positive and negative – are natural. For some reason we are told that negative emotions are bad. That’s not true because negative emotions have a very important function. They tell you that something is wrong and you need to change something. Like a true friend who challenges you, emotions, too challenge you to grow and become a better person. Sometimes emotions nudge you into making a decision that could probably get you out of an unwanted relationship or warn you that things are not right. Anxiety tells you that you are up for a challenge and you need to prep up. Pain teaches you about love. Anger teaches you about your boundaries and fear teaches you about trust.
Steps in emotional management:
Identify the emotion. That is the first and most important step. A lot of people have problems with stage one. They feel hungry or feel tired or feel lonely or feel sleepy instead of sad, anxious or jealous. Ask yourself ‘what is that you are feeling?’ and ‘Where in body are you feeling it?’
Taking responsibility for your feeling. Once you have identified ask yourself ‘why do I feel this way?’ The tendency here is to blame the other person or situation for your feeling. This is the most common defense mechanism. The truth is that only you and you alone are responsible for how you feel.
Once you own your emotion you can begin to become ready to open up to your emotions and listen to what they are saying.
To be continued…
(Writer is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and the HOD of psychology at Carmel College for Women)