What Is Emotional Detachment Disorder, And How Can It Be Treated?
By: Julia Thomas
Updated June 15, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: EmeliaThygesen
Emotions are unavoidable, dynamic, and ever-present. Some feelings are so intense that many people have experienced being emotionally numb at some point in their lives. This usually occurs during an emotionally charged or stressful event and involves a feeling of disconnection from the body. However, when this persists and decreases the quality of day-to-day life, well-being, and interpersonal relationships, it may be a sign of emotional detachment disorder.
What Is Emotional Detachment Disorder?
Emotional detachment is a state in which someone is unable to feel and express their emotions to the outer world. They have lost touch with and unconsciously stifle their inner world. Even though they may experience a range of emotions, they have a hard time communicating them with words or actions and have a habit of evading emotional connections instead. They will also avoid people, situations, or emotional experiences, which make them feel uncomfortable or anxious. This is all done to maintain a sense of control over their emotions.
There is a range of terminology for the way someone pushes these feelings out of awareness: denial, emotional numbing, disassociation, repression, and suppression are just some of them. However, when we try to pretend like those feelings do not exist, they can come back stronger than ever, and in ugly ways-sometimes they can even manifest themselves in illnesses and physical pain.
How Does Emotional Detachment Disorder Develop?
As children, we are meant to express our emotions as they come up naturally. Smiling, yelling, and crying are all ways in which we make known to people that we are happy, frustrated, or sad. When this is met by a caregiver who mirrors, acknowledges, and validates them, we instantaneously feel connected to our bodily emotions.
On the other hand, when we are shamed for expressing our feelings and our need for emotional safety is not met, an emotional detachment disorder often develops as a way to cope, protect ourselves, and survive. It commonly stems from trauma in childhood, particularly in children who were raised in strict households, were physically or emotionally abused, or experienced severe neglect. A study that followed 3,500 American children who were exposed to violence found that they developed emotional numbness and became desensitized overtime.
Emotional numbness may also occur with other traumatic experiences such as a car crash or near-death experience, the loss of a loved one, interpersonal conflict, or a financial crisis. People who develop post-traumatic disorder from these experiences commonly use emotional avoidance as a way to cope with their trauma. Over time, this disassociation can develop into a day-to-day coping mechanism when dealing with extreme or continual stress and has been linked to chronic conditions such as depersonalization disorder and borderline personality disorder.
Signs Of Emotional Detachment Disorder
It is important to recognize that sometimes suppressing strong emotions until you feel safe enough to express them is an indicator of positive and healthy, behavior. There is a context, time, and place to share what is going on, and being aware of how and when is a sign of emotional maturity. Rather than it being the inability to engage in emotions, it is a way to maintain boundaries and protect oneself and others for personal or social reasons. For example, if you know you are going to be shamed by a colleague or relative for sharing your thoughts or feelings, it may not be a good idea to express them at that moment.
The most common sign of an emotionally detached person is their inability to express their feelings. For example, they may feel very emotional, but their face is outwardly flat, or feel angry but repress it until they develop physical symptoms like a headache. They may also be unable to cry, even if they may need or want to. Those suffering from this disorder have trouble maintaining close relationships because of this lack of emotional expression and connection.
Another emotionally detached behavior pattern is the inability to display empathy with others. They have a hard time loving or understanding those close to them, even if they have a desire to. Their extreme difficulty in offering or receiving empathy can be linked to narcissistic personality disorder and allow acts of cruelty and ostracism without any desire to connect to the other person emotionally.
Relationally, they may have a fear of appearing weak or clingy, cutting off relationships before they start or get too intimate. They are not comfortable in dealing with other's emotions and put up barriers to keep their feelings hidden, often appearing preoccupied, inattentive or aloof. These walls can take the form of sarcasm, a defense mechanism against feelings of disappointment or hurt. They may also come across as fiercely independent and believe they can do things on their own without reliance on anybody else.
Emotionally detached people tend to avoid people, places, and events that have the potential to trigger traumatic events they have experienced. They bury their feelings so deep within themselves that to be in their bodies is uncomfortable. Many distract themselves from that discomfort by using substances such as alcohol and drugs and indulge in addictions like gambling, pornography, and endless scrolling on social media.
How To Treat Emotional Detachment Disorder
The good news is that emotional detachment disorder is treatable, and there are practical things you can do, which can aid healing and growth. The goal is to connect and integrate certain aspects of your life: your physical body, your emotions, and your words and actions.
- Practice body mindfulness. People with emotional detachment disorder often feel disconnected from their bodies, particularly so in this day and age, where people spend a lot of their time glued to their phones and living in the virtual world. One well-known mindfulness practice is to do a body scan, drawing your attention on each body part and the sensations you feel as you move your awareness down your body. This is a grounding practice that will connect you with the sensations of being alive in the present moment.
- Ask yourself these questions: What emotion am I feeling right now? What is happening in my body as I am experiencing this? For example, if you recognize that you are feeling angry, you may notice your jaw clenching, your breath becoming more shallow, or your fists tightening. Or, in moments of happiness, you may feel your heart beating faster, your cheeks flushing, or your stomach fluttering. Asking yourself these questions will give you insight into your inner world and will help strengthen your mind and body awareness.
- Seek therapy. Engaging with a licensed mental health professional is important when treating any disorder, but especially so when you are struggling with emotional detachment. Through a relationship based on mutual trust and connection, a therapist can not only help you identify at what point you developed emotional detachment but also help you find new ways of connecting with others and releasing yourself from emotional suppression.
- Create art. Expressing yourself through painting, drawing, working with clay, or dancing transcends the logical mind and helps you connect with your inner experience. Art is created from deep within the core of someone; it is in this way that you can learn things about yourself that were previously hidden and live in a way that is more congruent to who you truly are.
- Develop relationships with safe people. When you start to connect more to your emotions, you also need people around you who will support that growth. Finding healthy relationships where you feel safe to be yourself and express your feelings is of vital importance. It is of equal importance to rethink the relationships in your life with people who are resistant or unsupportive of that change.
- Allow yourself to be vulnerable over time. Being vulnerable naturally means taking a risk, and that is by no means easy. However, it is the only way in which deep, intimate, and rewarding relationships can flourish. Expressing your emotions is not a sign of weakness, contrary to what cultural or societal pressures tell you, but rather a sign that you are an alive and perfectly functioning human being. Be patient with yourself and keep trying to connect with the world around you in small ways every day.
- Diverge from substances like alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with emotional pain. This can deeply and negatively impact your emotional and mental development. Though they may meet important needs like sleep and ease, there are other, healthier ways to get them met without harming yourself in the process. When you abstain from self-medicating, you can start to develop, experience, and confront a range of emotions that can offer invaluable insight into yourself.
Although emotional detachment disorder can feel all-consuming and pervasive, it is by no means unconquerable. By experimenting with these techniques above, you can begin to reconnect to your rich inner world and express your emotions in healthy and mature ways. With the right support, self-care, and time, there is remarkable hope and success in healing from emotional detachment.
FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
Is emotional detachment a mental illness?
In itself, emotional detachment is not a mental illness. However, it is a symptom of some mental illnesses. For example, if you are depressed, you may feel emotionally detached or out of touch with your feelings. It is essential to address the symptom of emotional detachment because it could also be a symptom of something else. Emotional numbness is an uncomfortable feeling. You might think that you are absent of emotion. However, although emotional numbness entails the absence of some feeling, you may still be experiencing others. It's important to get emotional support, whether you have a mental illness or not. You can feel emotionally and physically numb at the same time, depending on what you're experiencing. If that experience is emotional detachment as a symptom of mental illness, you can talk to a licensed therapist about it. Sometimes emotional detachment is caused by something other than mental illness, which you can talk about in therapy. Numbness can be caused by depression, and it is also one of the symptoms of the condition. Feelings of emptiness can be construed as feeling emotionally numb. Treatment for emotional numbness can require therapy or medication.
What is the disease where you have no emotions?
It would not be considered a disease; however, there are certain mental illnesses or mental health conditions where people exhibit a lack of affect. For example, a person with antisocial personality disorder may not display outward emotion. It's important not to refer to mental illness as a disease because it can stigmatize people. Another thing is that many different conditions can present as lacking emotion or affect. As a result of schizophrenia or another psychotic state, people who are experiencing psychosis may appear emotionless as a result of overwhelming symptoms. Remember that using "disease" to refer to mental illness can be highly stigmatizing, so it's essential not to use that word.
How do you detach from emotions?
Some people are logical individuals, and they compartmentalize their emotions from their rational minds. It's easy for them to detach emotionally. Another reason that you might detach from emotions is due to trauma. Trauma impacts the brain, and it might be overwhelming to feel your feelings. If you're experiencing emotional numbness, it might be because you're traumatized. Emotional numbness can feel extremely uncomfortable, but it can also be comforting or provide some relief if you're emotionally overwhelmed. When you feel numb, you might crave the presentation of feelings. Remember that all feelings are valid, and you can get through this time if you speak about your feelings openly in therapy.
What is an emotional disorder?
There are conditions called mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. These are conditions where a person's mood is dysregulated or disrupted; they suffer from moodiness depending on the condition. Someone with bipolar disorder may experience periods of high highs and low lows. People with depression may feel stabilized, followed by a low period. People with mood disorders may express emotions in a way that other people are not used to seeing or witnessing. Keep in mind that they may be experiencing emotional numbness or feelings of anxiety or depression. They might also get irritable. People with mood disorders can experience a variety of different feelings. For example, somebody with borderline personality disorder may feel numerous emotions in just one day.
What causes emotional detachment in relationships?
When you're feeling emotionally detached in a relationship, it could be that you're afraid to be yourself, and you don't want to invest energy into feeling vulnerable. So, instead, you detach. It also could be that you have an attachment disorder. But it's important to discuss these concerns in therapy, particularly if you are experiencing emotional numbness. It's because, in a healthy relationship, the priority is feeling loved and being able to give and receive love.
Do people with schizophrenia know the voices aren't real?
In some instances, people with schizophrenia are aware that they're having hallucinations. When they're in psychosis, they understand that the auditory hallucinations are not "real." Just because a person who has schizophrenia sees or hears something and others do not, it does not make it less "real" to them. Somebody might know that they're in psychosis and then communicate that to their doctor. They might be deep in a psychotic episode and believe that the voices they are hearing are, in fact, "real." It depends on the individual.
Why do I cry at everything?
If you find yourself crying a lot, it could be that you have depression or may be experiencing grief. You might also be a sensitive person. Perhaps you're extremely affected by certain things. After all, some people are more sensitive than others. You could be a highly sensitive individual. Sometimes after crying a lot, people will experience emotional numbness because they're overwrought with emotion and need a break from their brains. You could experience a lack of emotion after crying a lot. If you find yourself crying frequently, it's essential to be able to discuss this in therapy because a therapist will understand the source of your sensitivity, and whether you're crying is connected to a mental health issue.
What are the nine traits of borderline personality disorder?
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a highly stigmatized mental illness, and it's important to remember that just because you have borderline doesn't mean that there's something "wrong with you." It means that you have a personality disorder that can be treated, and it is highly treatable.
The nine symptoms are:
- Chronic fear of abandonment
- Unstable or volatile relationships
- Shifting self-image
- Impulsive or self-destructive behaviors
- Self-harm (including but not limited to hypersexuality and compulsive spending) and suicide attempts
- Mood swings
- Chronic feelings of emptiness or numbness
- Explosive anger
- Being paranoid of others or feeling out of touch with reality (i.e., psychosis).
Because people with BPD experience emotions in such a rapid way, sometimes after said experience comes emotional numbness. Remember that they might express their emotions in a different way than somebody who doesn't have a personality disorder.
What does emotionally disengaged mean?
If somebody is emotionally disengaged, it means that they are disconnected from their feelings and don't want to confront or interface with them. If you feel disengaged from your feelings, a discussion with your therapist can be helpful.
What do you call someone who is emotionally detached?
A person who has an emotionally detached issue could have an attachment issue, such as an avoidant attachment. But there are many different reasons why somebody who is emotionally detached could be feeling that way. Therefore, it is not accurate or fair to label them in a blanket approach. It's essential to understand the source of one's emotional detachment rather than to generalize it.
Does anxiety cause depersonalization?
Anxiety can be the source of depersonalization if somebody feels like they cannot control their panic or anxiety. They may experience disconnectedness from themselves, where they're floating above their body because they are so anxious. Especially for people who have panic disorders, depersonalization is widespread. You might also experience emotional numbness along with depersonalization. If you are feeling depersonalization symptoms, this is something that you can work on with a licensed mental health professional.
How do I emotionally detach from my husband?
If you are in an abusive relationship, it would be essential to detach from your husband because you don't want to be abused in any way. If you're thinking about detaching and going your separate ways, the healthy choice might be to go to couples counseling, work through issues, and separate peacefully. But if you're in a healthy relationship, it's not an ideal scenario to be emotionally detached from your husband because a partnership means that you want to be connected in some way. Whatever the case is, it's important to discuss these issues in therapy so that you can get a handle on why you want to detach from him.