Updated: Nov 5, 2020
After losing them through complex trauma, is it possible to feel emotions again? Can therapy be helpful?
I absolutely think it’s possible to be able to feel the full range of human emotion through therapy. I’m a therapist and see it all the time with a wide range of presenting symptoms or diagnoses. Not all at once. Not always the same intensity. Not right away. It varies widely from client to client.
I'm going to break this question into two parts.
LOSING THE ABILITY TO FEEL
I’m obsessed with the Polyvagal Theory which might be able to explain this phenomenon of why someone can “lose” their capacity to feel. The PVT describes that mammals have a biological response to danger that is based on an evolutionary hierarchy. If we can’t be safe, then we drop down the “Polyvagal Ladder” into flight energy, then fight. If we can’t run or fight, then we drop to the bottom of the ladder into a shutdown collapse.
As we drop down the ladder into evolutionary older biological pathways, we literally lose access to the feelings that are higher up the ladder. Here's a simple breakdown of feelings associated with each state:
Safe & Social - happy, joy, connected, safe, peaceful
Flight/Fight - anxious, angry, irritable, nervous, worry
Shutdown - numb, disconnected, sad, alone
Feelings of joy and calm are in the ventral vagal safety pathways at the top of the ladder. When we’re in the flight sympathetic pathways, we lose access to those feelings of joy or calm. We also lose access to our ability to safely connect, use critical thinking or to play. Because those skills and abilities are available only when the ventral vagal pathways are active.
If we can't escape the situation, we drop further down the ladder into sympathetic fight energy. In this sympathetic fight state, we unlock feelings of anger, aggression, irritability. These feelings compel us to close space and hunt (ever wonder why you get "hangry"?). To fight back against a predator in order to create space so we can run away to safety. Feelings of worry or anxiousness disappear, as they are no longer useful for surviving through aggression.
If we drop all the way down into our shutdown system, we basically lose access to a much wider range of feelings, leaving us with numbness, disconnection and emptiness. It’s a very disconnected and isolated way to exist in the world. In this state of biological conservation, the organism has no use for feelings of joy or anxiety or anger. Everything gets slowed down to mimic the collapse of death.
So from a Polyvagal perspective, there is a biological reason why someone would "lose" their feelings. It depends on which feeling we're talking about. Of course, things are more complex than what I laid out, this is simply the starting point. Your feelings in particular are beautifully unique and probably can't be summed up in a few paragraphs in a blog.
When it comes to discovering your own feelings again, especially the moments of safety and being in the present moment, I highly recommend the course that I created as a resource for you. It's for the person that is ready to exist more in the present moment, can invest in their growth and is ready for change. This individual can set the intention to follow 30 days of guided learning and doing in small doses. It might be you, I don't know. The course is called Building Safety Anchors and I think it can be of help.
CAN THERAPY HELP?
So can therapy help? Yeah, if someone has the right therapist for them and the right environment and the right modality. Therapy can work wonders and help the client to access their pathways that are higher up their polyvagal ladders.
Like I said earlier, it's something that I see all the time in therapy. 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 feelings underneath those emotions. The goal at this point would to be with those feelings, something that can be done as the strength of their vagal brake increases more and more.
Therapy hopefully provides a safe container of co-regulation. Through the safe environment, safe therapist and co-regulation, the client can begin to be with their feelings. And they can develop that capacity over the course of therapy. As they climb their polyvagal ladder, those feelings will return. One rung of the ladder at a time.
Again, I highly recommend my course for the person that is ready to commit to making change. 30 days of learning about and practicing being in the present moment.