When it comes to painful emotions, we typically think of feelings like grief, anger, loneliness, and shame. What we don’t talk about as often is how painful it can be to feel nothing at all – to feel completely empty.
Emptiness is a feeling many people experience, whether it’s short-term due to a severely stressful or traumatic event or chronic due to a mental health condition like depression. To feel nothing can be incredibly distressing.. Some people engage in risky behaviors like self-harm because feeling anything is better than feeling nothing.
If you’re feeling empty, there are ways to cope. But first, it’s important to figure out what’s behind it. Here are some things to know about the feeling of emptiness, why you might be feeling nothing, and what you can do to start reconnecting with yourself.
What causes an empty feeling?
A feeling of emptiness can also be described as emotional numbness; in the world of psychology, it’s sometimes called emotional blunting or affective blunting.
When you feel absolutely nothing, you have no emotional reaction toward anything, including pleasant feelings, like joy, as well as painful feelings, like grief or anger. Some people may feel so emotionally numb they feel a complete disconnect from themselves. Others might simply feel emotionally fatigued or that their emotions aren’t as strong as they normally would be.
This empty feeling is often tied to depression, and it can be caused by depression. But many different health conditions can lead to emotional numbness, which can be a side effect of certain medications as well.
Some of the most common causes of emotional numbness include:
- Depression: Depression can cause you to become disconnected to your emotions. People with depression can also experience anhedonia, which is an inability to feel pleasure. This can often feel like numbness.
- Depersonalization-derealization disorder: This is a mental health disorder that makes you feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you. If you live with this condition, then you might feel like all of your senses are fogged up or you’re having an out-of-body experience.
- Medications: Emotional numbness can be a side effect of some medications, especially antidepressant medications. One study found almost half of people who took antidepressants experienced emotional numbness.
- Severe stress: Being under severe stress can cause you to have high cortisol levels, which can cause emotional numbness. The same happens when you have experienced a traumatic event.
- Panic attacks: During a panic attack, your brain and limbic system are under very intense levels of stress and anxiety. Many people feel foggy or disconnected from themselves during panic attacks.
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD): One of the characteristics of borderline personality disorder is a chronic feeling of emptiness. People with BPD may feel empty because they don’t have a strong sense of self, or because they feel lonely and hopeless.
In general, emotional numbness happens when your brain is flooded with stress hormones. Certain things are simply too much for our brains to handle. We might shut down and feel numb as a way to protect ourselves.
Signs that you’re experiencing emotional numbness
If you haven’t experienced emotional numbness before, it could be hard for you to recognize when you’re feeling emotionally numb. In addition, different people experience numbness differently, so it might look different for you than for someone else.
Some signs you might be going through emotional numbness or emptiness include:
- You aren’t able to feel or express emotions, including when something happens that would ordinarily evoke strong emotions in you (like losing someone you love).
- You’re chronically bored; no matter what you do, you can’t seem to feel excited about anything.
- You’re lacking motivation; you feel like life is meaningless, and you don’t have the drive to set or reach your goals.
- You feel disconnected from your body. This can be described as having an “out-of-body experience.” You might not even notice when you’re hungry or thirsty.
- You feel like you’re living life on autopilot, or as if some other entity has taken over your body and is living life in your place. You feel you’re watching your life pass you by rather than living it actively.
- You feel isolated from others and have a difficult time conjuring up empathy for others.
- You don’t feel like doing anything. Often, you spend the day in bed or hiding.
- You engage in risky behaviors, like unsafe sex, spending money, or substance abuse, to try to feel something.
- You engage in non-suicidal self-injurious behaviors (self-harm like cutting) to break the feeling of emptiness.
- You feel like you’re nothing and nobody, like you don’t even exist.
- You’re lacking a purpose in life, and you feel like your days are unfulfilling.
How to cope with emptiness
This feeling of emptiness can be so distressing. Even though emptiness causes us to feel nothing, this “nothing” can be incredibly painful. Some people use risky and dangerous behaviors in an effort to escape emptiness, which doesn’t help in the long run.
However, there are ways to cope with and break out of this feeling of emptiness. In more severe cases, or if emptiness is associated with a mental health condition like depression or BPD, then professional treatment may be required to overcome it. But in other situations, you may be able to use self-help techniques to ease the feeling of emptiness.
Here are some tips.
Be mindful of all of your emotions, even emptiness
Emptiness isn’t just the lack of emotion. It can also be an emotion that causes distress in and of itself. Seeing emptiness as a distressing emotion, rather than the absence of one might be helpful. .
Practicing mindfulness of emotions and allowing all feelings to be present without judgment can also be a helpful way to lessen the pain they bring. For example, if you were feeling grief, you might invite the grief in and simply sit with it.
You can do the same with emptiness. When you notice you’re feeling empty, simply say, “I’m feeling empty right now.” Try to avoid judging yourself for feeling empty or pushing the feeling away.
Find purpose, even if it’s small
Some people feel empty because they have no purpose in life. Having a purpose is one of the most important aspects to a happy, meaningful life. But what you might not know is that purpose isn’t something you find – it’s something you create.
One way to find your purpose in life is by trying different things. What activities bring your life joy and meaning, even if it’s just a little bit? For example, maybe you feel a tiny increase in your mood when you spend time with your dog. Could animals bring you a sense of purpose?
Your purpose doesn’t have to be connected to your job. You can have a sense of purpose that has nothing at all to do with the way you make a living. The important thing is you have a reason to get up everyday.
Try a grounding exercise
Sometimes, you may feel fuzzy or like you’re outside of your body due to severe anxiety, trauma, or panic. In these situations, a grounding exercise can be useful – anything that helps you connect back to the here and now in the physical world (both your own physical body as well as the physical environment around you).
One grounding exercise you can use is the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, which engages your 5 senses. Find and name:
- 5 things around you that you can see.
- 4 different sounds that you can hear.
- 3 different smells you notice.
- 2 different textures you can feel by picking up items around you.
- 1 thing you can taste, whether it’s toothpaste, a piece of food, or anything else.
Repeat this grounding activity until you feel more centered.
Get to know your true self
Sometimes, emptiness can come on because you’re a stranger to yourself. You might not know exactly what makes you, you. This might cause you to feel like you have no identity or core sense of self.
Developing a sense of self is a long-term journey. But you can start small by slowly getting in touch with core characteristics that make you who you are. For example, you might notice you are a person who likes to make people laugh. Or maybe you know you are easily drained by being around big groups of people.
Whatever it is, get in touch with it. What are your strengths and your weaknesses? Who are you, really?
Lastly, a chronic or severe feeling of emptiness may require professional treatment to overcome. Mental health therapy and other holistic treatment methods can help you dig deep to get to the root of your emptiness and emerge as your best authentic self.
At The Center ● A Place of HOPE, we offer unique mental health treatment programs, including a trauma recovery program and a depression treatment program, using our proven Whole Person Care method. Whole Person Care means we see and honor who you are beyond the trauma you’ve been through, and can help you start to rebuild your identity from the ground up.
Schedule a callback, and our team will get back to you at your earliest convenience. You don’t need to go through this alone.