“I just don’t want to feel anything.”
“Feeling scares me.”
“If I slow down, it might all catch up to me.”
“If I start feeling, I’m afraid I will never stop.”
“If I keep myself busy enough, then I don’t have to think about it.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have sat with individuals over the years and heard statements with similar sentiment. Even if people do not say it, think about how many people you know (including yourself) who have tried to occupy or distract their minds to cope with various levels of stress.
Your attempts to cope probably didn’t start with the intent of numbing everything. Initially, your brain was just trying to find relief. Maybe you started with exercise to keep yourself physically healthy, and your brain quickly figured out that exercise helped you feel better emotionally as well. Maybe you threw yourself fully into your work to distract yourself from what was going on at home. “Just keep yourself busy so you only have time to sleep,” you would tell yourself. Or maybe it was a half-gallon of ice cream. That sweet, creamy flavor made everything feel a little better momentarily. Maybe it started with one drink to “take the edge off.” Or maybe you learned that when you caused yourself physical harm, you felt a bit of emotional relief, as your body would have no other choice other than to focus on responding to the place of harm.
Many times, feeling better meant distress, anxiety, sadness, fear, discomfort, insecurity or anger lessened, at least temporarily. Once our brains realized that introducing behaviors that numbed our feelings and released pleasure chemicals in our brains helped us navigate our short-term distress, they were willing to go to extremes to make that relief happen, especially if we were not aware of or did not have access to other resources to help us feel better. This is true even if our attempts to numb rationally had the likelihood of being harmful to us in the long term, which helps us better understand how people develop coping responses through seemingly harmful behaviors like addictions, eating disorders, and self-harming.
Eventually, when the distressing feelings came back, as they inevitably do when we aren’t processing through the situations or events that are contributing to their presence in the first place, your brain was even more determined to make the distress go away again. Each time the feelings returned, they were more intense than the last time. And the more you implemented these numbing coping strategies, the less effective your efforts became, which meant it took more restriction, exercise, working, distraction, substances, binging, purging, gambling, sex, and/or self-harming to achieve relief. The more driven your mind was to achieve that relief, the more it pursued those behaviors regardless of the cost to your personal life, family life, or work life. What you initially used to try to assert some sense of control eventually may have started controlling you.
For most people who attempt to cope through numbing (consciously or subconsciously), you have spent so long attempting to push everything down or away to get through your everyday lives that the prospect of feeling is scary. But as Dr. Brene Brown reminds us, “You cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb [hard feelings like sadness, grief, anxiety, confusion, helplessness, and fear], we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness.”
Since living numb is not really living at all, since it is absolutely exhausting trying to outrun feelings all the time, and since what you have used to numb thus far has not proven to be effective long-term (and may have created additional problems), I have a proposition for you: As helpful as those behaviors may have been to help you survive a really challenging time, maybe you don’t need them anymore.
I know it sounds terrifying to even think about the possibility of living without your numbing behaviors. But what if I could assure you that there are other ways to process through what has happened so that your brain can re-establish feelings of safety and doesn’t feel as distressed as often? What if you could learn how to pay attention to your body so you could implement coping skills before you got overwhelmed? What if there were other ways to cope that wouldn’t cause your body further harm or limit your ability to experience joy? What if you could gain some control back over your life? And what if your life doesn’t have to revolve around escaping?
If all those things were possible, would it be worth trying something different?
Your brain made the best choice it could to help you survive given the knowledge and resources it had in the moment, but there are other ways to cope that do not require giving up our ability to feel joy, love, gratitude, and happiness. I know for some of you reading this, it has been a very long time since you have felt any of those things, but I promise you it is possible. No matter what you have experienced that may be contributing to your brain’s desire to numb or what you have used to numb, there are therapeutic ways to help your brain and your body process the situations and events that are contributing to your distress. It is not going to be easy, but you do not have to navigate any of this alone. There are people who want to walk through this with you and can help.
At Water’s Edge Counseling and Healing Center, we partner with clients to identify ways to allow each person’s brain and body space to heal through body-based processing therapies like Sensorimotor and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. In addition to individual therapy, we offer group therapy for individuals struggling with eating disorders, trauma, anxiety disorders, and mood disorders. Because we know that healing involves mind, body, and spirit, our team also includes dietitians, healthcare providers, recreational therapists, and a chaplain as helpful for each client’s healing journey.