Updated: Aug 28
As a physician and acupuncturist, I have witnessed firsthand the profound impact that emotions can have on our physical health. While it's natural to experience a range of emotions, it's important to be aware of the difference between emotional regulation and emotional numbing.
Emotional regulation is the ability to recognize and manage our emotions in a healthy way. This involves being aware of our emotional states, acknowledging our feelings, and responding to them in a kind and constructive manner. Emotional regulation allows us to experience the full range of human emotions while maintaining a sense of balance, calm, and control.
Emotional numbing, on the other hand, is the practice of suppressing or avoiding our emotions altogether. This can manifest as a lack of emotional responsiveness or a tendency to shut down when confronted with strong feelings. While emotional numbing may provide temporary relief from difficult emotions, it can have long-term negative consequences on our mental and physical health. When we numb our emotions, we may be suppressing important information about our thoughts, feelings, and experiences, which can ultimately make it more difficult to process and integrate these experiences over time. When this is repeated time after time, sooner or later, we can actually become alien to ourselves.
If you recognize the tendency in yourself to emotionally numb difficult emotions, just know that your body in all its evolutionary wisdom is simply trying to protect you from a perceived danger. We all have an innate stress response built into our brains. The amygdala, a small structure in the brain, plays a key role in this response by signaling the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This response was critical for our ancestors' survival in dangerous situations, but in today's world, it can be maladaptive.
When we experience strong emotions, our bodies may respond as if we are in danger, even if the threat is not physical. This stress response can lead to physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and shallow breathing. These sensations can be uncomfortable and, moreover, can be overwhelming, which can lead us to seek ways to numb or avoid them. However, we can override this response when we learn to connect with our bodies and recognize these physical sensations, and can begin to retrain our stress response and achieve emotional regulation.
I experienced this very thing during my career as a pediatric emergency care doctor. A few years into practice, I found myself at times using emotional numbing as a way of coping with the stress and pain that I regularly witnessed in my patients and their families. In an attempt to tamper my own feelings and maintain composure, I became increasingly emotionally detached. However, I realized that emotional numbing was not an effective coping strategy as I felt more and more disconnected from my patients and colleagues as well as my work. All this came to a head when I experienced some significant personal losses that left me feeling overwhelmed with grief and sadness. I found myself struggling even more to cope with the intensity of my emotions and started to rely on busyness as a way of distracting myself from the discomfort. I threw myself into projects, social events, and anything else that would keep me occupied and prevent me from facing the full weight of my feelings. Eventually, I became completely exhausted and knew that I needed to find a way to reconnect with my emotions in a gentle, healthy, constructive way.
So, this is what I did. I began a daily yoga practice. I started practicing mindfulness and self-compassion. I sought out support from a therapist and trusted friends. I allowed myself to feel the full range of my emotions, even when they were painful or difficult. By reconnecting with my emotions and developing healthy coping strategies for managing stress and trauma, my personal and professional relationships improved. I was able to become a more effective and fulfilled healthcare professional. I was better able to connect with my patients and colleagues, and my work took on greater meaning and purpose.
Over the long term, emotional numbing can lead to a range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also contribute to a sense of disconnection or alienation from others, as well as difficulties in forming and maintaining close relationships. Physically, emotional numbing can contribute to a range of health issues, including chronic pain, digestive problems, and autoimmune disorders. It can also lead us towards unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or other addictive behaviors.
Overall, emotional numbing can have a significant impact on our well-being over the long term. By learning to regulate our emotions in a healthy way and cultivating greater emotional resilience, we can protect ourselves from the negative effects of emotional numbing and thrive in all aspects of our lives.
So, how can we cultivate more emotional regulation in our lives? Here are a few ideas:
Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness can help us become more aware of our emotions and how they affect our bodies. Put simply, it is the practice of noticing ourselves - our thoughts, our feelings, the sensations in our body - with a nonjudgemental attitude of friendliness. This can train our minds to help us identify our emotional triggers and respond to them in a more helpful way.
Develop healthy coping strategies: Instead of turning to substances or behaviors that numb our emotions, try developing healthier coping strategies. This can include exercise, creative expression, or spending time in nature.
Seek support: Talking to a therapist or trusted friend can help us process difficult emotions and develop strategies for managing them. Being around safe people who can support us in our emotional regulation is a crucial element of building emotional resilience. Research has shown that co-regulation, the process by which two individuals help regulate each other's emotions, can be particularly beneficial for individuals who have experienced trauma or chronic stress. Being in the presence of a safe and attuned person can help to repair the neural pathways in the brain that may have been damaged by earlier experiences of stress or trauma.
Use acupuncture: Acupuncture has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders. By targeting specific points on the body, acupuncture can help regulate the flow of qi (energy), unbind the muscles and fascia that may be stuck in a "fight or flight" response and promote emotional balance.
What happens, though, when we are flooded in a moment of challenging emotions? To be clear, when unexpectedly faced with strong emotions, it can be challenging to stay grounded and maintain emotional regulation. However, it's essential to avoid emotionally numbing ourselves as a coping mechanism. One way to achieve emotional regulation in the moment is to practice deep breathing and mindfulness. Take a moment to pause, perhaps close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Focus on the sensation of the breath moving in and out of your body, and allow yourself to experience the emotion without judgment or resistance. Acknowledge that the emotion is there, and allow yourself to feel it without trying to suppress or avoid it. Once you've allowed yourself to experience the emotion fully, you can then take steps to respond to it in a healthy and constructive way. This can involve seeking support, practicing self-care, or engaging in other healthy coping strategies. Know that if you feel overwhelmed, it is always okay to step away and come back to it another time.
If you're not sure whether you are experiencing emotional regulation or emotional numbing, try tuning into your body and noticing any physical sensations that may be present. Emotional regulation often involves a sense of groundedness and stability, while emotional numbing may feel more like a sense of disconnection or detachment. Of course, to be able to do this, we must know how to feel our bodies and connect with our physical sensations. When we are experiencing strong emotions, our bodies often respond in specific ways, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, or shallow breathing. By learning to recognize and feel these physical sensations, we can better understand our emotional states and develop strategies for managing them without resorting to emotional numbing.
Here are some practices that can help us feel our bodies and achieve emotional regulation:
Mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool for cultivating awareness and presence in the body. By setting aside some time to focus on our breath and physical sensations, we can learn to observe our emotions without getting swept up in them. This can help us stay grounded and centered, even in the face of strong emotions. The key is to practice with self-compassion and offer ourselves the same kindness, care, and understanding that we would offer to a close friend who is struggling. By treating ourselves with compassion, we can reduce feelings of shame and self-blame, which can often exacerbate negative emotions.
Yoga: Yoga is a form of movement that emphasizes awareness of the body and breath. By practicing yoga, we can develop greater body awareness and learn to regulate our breathing, which can help us manage our emotions more effectively.
Body scan meditation: Body scan meditation is a practice where we systematically scan our bodies from head to toe, paying attention to each area and noticing any physical sensations or areas of tension. This practice can help us become more aware of our bodies and recognize how our emotions manifest in our physical sensations.
Breathwork: Breathwork practices, such as deep breathing or pranayama, can help us regulate our emotions by calming the nervous system and reducing stress. By practicing breathwork regularly, we can learn to use our breath as a tool for emotional regulation.
By learning to feel our bodies and connect with our physical sensations, we can develop greater emotional awareness and resilience. By building our emotional resilience and learning to regulate our emotions in a healthy way, we can cultivate a greater sense of wellbeing and connection in our lives. This is an essential aspect of both our mental and physical well-being that can offer us more fulfilling joyful and authentic lives. If you're struggling with emotional regulation or emotional numbing, you might consider reaching out to a healthcare professional for guidance and support.