Why are you numb if you've been through something traumatic? Can you truly ever regain your ability to feel emotions? And can therapy be helpful? This blog will answer these questions and provide some next steps to start regaining your emotions from numbness.
Numbness after trauma is more than your emotions.
I'll first expand the scope of what we're discussing in the question - Why are my emotions numb after trauma? Likely, you're numb to more than just your emotions. There are, many dimensions to who we are as humans. We have emotions, thoughts, impulses, sensations and our underlying Polyvagal state.
If we look at things in this more expansive way, do you notice numbness anywhere else? More specifically, in your bodily sensations. Let me explain.
Emotions live in your body.
When we have emotions, they don't simply exist in our brains. We feel our emotions in our bodies. Emotions are felt from the bottom up, from the body to the brain. And then we have thoughts about our emotions, often judgments or rejections.
But underneath those emotions are our sensations. Our emotions have an experience, something we can notice and feel. For example, when you're angry, you have sensations that underlie the emotion of anger. Sensations of anger might include:
If you're numb to your emotions, you may also be numb to your sensations.
The Polyvagal state of your body determines your emotional range.
I'll take this one step further. Emotions and sensations are both directly connected to the state of our bodies. If our bodies are in a state of defense, the sensations and emotions experienced will be limited. Likewise, if our bodies are in a state of safety and prepared for connection, then the range of emotions and sensations will shift.
The Polyvagal Theory explains how our bodies can be prepared for safety or defense. These bodily states directly contribute to our emotions, sensations, impulses, and cognitions. Everything changes based on what state we are in.
And this applies to numbness as well.
The Polyvagal Theory explains being numb after trauma.
The Polyvagal Theory has a possible explanation for why one might experience being numb after trauma.
The PVT uses an evolutionary hierarchy to describe mammals' biological responses to danger. If we can’t be safe, we drop the “Polyvagal Ladder” into flight energy, then fight. If we can’t run or fight, we drop to the bottom of the ladder into a shutdown collapse.
Emotions come from your body's autonomic state on the Polyvagal ladder.
As we drop down the ladder into evolutionary older biological pathways, we lose access to the skills, functions, and experiences higher up the ladder. And this includes the emotional experiences of each state. Here's a simple breakdown of emotions associated with each state:
Safe & Social - happy, joyful, connected, safe, peaceful
Flight/Fight - anxious, angry, irritable, nervous, worry
Shutdown - numb, disconnected, sad, alone
Emotions of joy and calm stem from the ventral vagal safety pathways at the top of the ladder. When we’re in the flight/fight sympathetic pathways, we lose access to those feelings of joy or calm. We also lose access to our ability to connect safely, critically think, or play because those skills and abilities are available only when the ventral vagal safety pathways are active.
If we can't escape a dangerous situation using sympathetic flight activation, we drop further down the Polyvagal ladder into sympathetic fight energy. In this sympathetic fight state, we unlock feelings of anger, aggression, and irritability. Aggression allows us to fight back against a predator to create space so we can then run away to safety. Feelings of worry or anxiousness from flight activation disappear, as they are no longer useful for surviving through aggression.
Numbness after trauma comes from shutdown.
Suppose we drop down to the bottom of the Polyvagal ladder and into our shutdown system. In that case, we basically lose access to a much wider range of feelings, leaving us with numbness, disconnection, and emptiness. A dorsal vagal shutdown is a very disconnected and isolated way to exist.
Everything gets slowed down to mimic the collapse of death. In this state of biological conservation, the organism has no use for emotions of joy, anxiety, or anger.
Entering into a shutdown state could come from traumatic incidents through a couple of different paths:
acute life threat reaction - the individual went through something that brought them to shutdown and immobilization. If this path of trauma involved a freeze response, shutdown was also involved since shutdown is an aspect of freeze. Read about the important difference in this blog article.
chronic disruption of connection - the individual was repeatedly cut off from safe connection and attachment with others. Typically, this occurs in childhood during the essential early attachment period. This can also occur throughout life if disconnected from safety, like with domestic violence.
Trauma means that one is unable to access or maintain access to their Polyvagal state of safety. One could be stuck in any of the defensive states, but the shutdown state is the state that brings numbness. Being stuck in this state has a unique experience to it.
The experience of shutdown is one of emptiness, numbness, and loneliness. One stuck in shutdown is numb to their emotions, sensations, and impulses. Life is pointless and they lack energy to make change.
From numb after trauma to fulfillment and connection.
It's possible to emerge from shutdown and live with more fulfillment and connection with yourself or others. To come out of shutdown, you need to allow shutdown to be felt and experienced mindfully. If you can experience shutdown mindfully, then the natural process of self-regulation can begin.
No, this is not easy. It requires patience with yourself and with the process. And no, you shouldn't allow your shutdown state to be fully present unless you can experience it mindfully. From curiosity and with self-compassion.
To experience any of your defensive states requires that your safety state be developed enough to handle the defensive activation. And to allow defensive activation, it's best to know what to do with it. And that's why I created Building Safety Anchors and Unstucking Defensive States. These courses and my private community are available for one subscription price in the Total Access Membership. Click below to learn more.
Can therapy stop numbness after trauma?
So can therapy help reduce your numbness after trauma? Yeah, if someone has the right therapist, therapeutic environment, and therapeutic modality for them. Therapy can work wonders and help the client to access their Polyvagal safety state.
But it's not a guarantee and largely relies on the relationship between the therapist and client. The client's life context also plays a major role in the potential to come out of a chronic shutdown. I'm a therapist and often see people slowly emerge from shutdown.
Coming out of shutdown is noticeable.
When someone comes out of their dorsal vagal shutdown and into their sympathetic fight energy, it's very noticeable. Their posture changes. Their thoughts change. Their face changes. And so do their self-reported feelings. When they look inward and notice, they can feel the emotions and the bodily sensations underneath those emotions.
Therapy provides a co-regulative relationship that gently encourages the client to emerge from shutdown. Neurocepting safety in the therapeutic alliance is central to this process. The therapist can also teach them and practice how to welcome their emotions back into their system.
I recommend safety emotions being the first that are addressed. As that becomes easier, then the defensive emotions can be welcomed.
Get all of my courses and community in Total Access.
If you're ready to take the next step in your trauma recovery journey, consider joining my Total Access Membership. This membership gives you access to my entire Polyvagal Trauma Relief System and a supportive community, providing you with the resources you need to navigate your path to healing.
Q: Why are you numb if you've been through something traumatic?
A: Numbness can occur as a result of trauma because the body enters into a shutdown state, which disconnects and isolates the individual. In this state, emotions, sensations, and impulses are suppressed.
Q: Can you truly ever regain your ability to feel emotions?
A: Yes, it is possible to regain the ability to feel emotions after experiencing numbness due to trauma. By mindfully experiencing the shutdown state and allowing self-regulation to occur, individuals can gradually emerge from shutdown and reconnect with their emotions.
Q: Can therapy be helpful to feel emotions after trauma?
A: Therapy can be helpful in reducing numbness after trauma. The right therapist, therapeutic environment, and modality can support the client in accessing their Polyvagal safety state and coming out of chronic shutdown. However, therapy's effectiveness depends on the therapist-client relationship and the client's life context.
Quotes from this blog:
Emotions live in your body. When we have emotions, they don't simply exist in our brains. We feel our emotions in our bodies. Emotions are felt from the bottom up, from the body to the brain.
If our bodies are in a state of defense, the sensations and emotions experienced will be limited. Likewise, if our bodies are in a state of safety and prepared for connection, then the range of emotions and sensations will shift.
Entering into a shutdown state could come from traumatic incidents through a couple of different paths: acute life threat reaction or chronic disruption of connection. Trauma means that one is unable to access or maintain access to their Polyvagal state of safety.
Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast, and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.