Exploring Emotional Numbness and Grief: The Abyss of Apathy and Loss

A calm scene representing emotional numbness.

Emotional detachment following the loss of a loved one represents a transitional phase between the initial shock of bereavement and the eventual adjustment to life without them. While society expects mourning to involve feelings of intense anger or sadness, experiencing numbness is a common response.

If you find yourself in this emotional state, know that you are not alone. Despite what the media depicts, grief is complex and highly individual, and numbness is not a sign of weakness or a lack of compassion. Numbness is a natural response, a shield against overwhelming pain.

Why Do Some People Experience Numbness After Grief or Loss?

Emotional numbness following grief or loss often stems from the mind’s attempt to protect itself from overwhelming pain. When faced with the shock and devastation of losing a loved one, the mind may instinctively shut down certain emotions as a defence mechanism.

This numbness can serve as a temporary shield, allowing individuals to cope with the initial shock and navigate through the immediate aftermath of loss. Additionally, everyone’s grieving process is unique, influenced by various factors such as personality, past experiences, and the nature of the loss itself, contributing to differences in emotional responses.

Types of Grief

Grief is not limited to the loss of a loved one but can encompass various types of losses and life transitions. Here are some different types of grief:

Death of a Loved One

This is the most commonly recognised form of grief, involving the loss of a family member, friend, or pet. It can evoke intense emotions and a sense of profound emptiness.

Divorce or Relationship Breakup

The end of a significant relationship can trigger feelings of grief, including sadness, anger, and loneliness. Individuals may mourn the loss of companionship, shared dreams, and the future they had envisioned.

Sexual Assault

Grief resulting from sexual violence is multifaceted and profound, stemming from the trauma and violation experienced. Survivors may mourn the loss of bodily autonomy, safety, and trust in others.

This form of trauma can profoundly affect a person’s daily routine and experiences, leaving them grieving the loss of the life they had before the assault, grappling with a profound sense of identity upheaval and immobilisation. Moreover, the long-lasting psychological impact of sexual violence can trigger ongoing grief cycles as survivors navigate healing and recovery.

Miscarriage or Infertility

The loss of a pregnancy or the inability to conceive can result in profound grief, accompanied by feelings of sadness, guilt, and longing for the child that will never be. Conversely, it can cause acute emotional numbness, impacting relationships, particularly when a couple may not grieve in the same way.

Geographical or Cultural Loss

Moving away from a familiar place or experiencing displacement due to migration can lead to feelings of grief for the loss of community, cultural identity, and a sense of belonging. This is particularly distressing when displacement is forced – such as in cases of conflict, or environmental disaster – and the process of migration may be traumatic.

Loss of Health or Physical Ability

Coping with chronic illness, disability, or injury can evoke feelings of grief for the life one had before the health decline. Individuals may mourn the loss of independence, vitality, and the ability to engage in activities they once enjoyed.

Loss of a Pet

The death or loss of a beloved pet can trigger grief similar to that experienced after the death of a human loved one, as individuals mourn the loss of companionship, unconditional love, and the bond they shared with their animal companion.

Traumatic Loss

Grief resulting from traumatic events such as natural disasters, accidents, or acts of violence can be especially complex and prolonged, often accompanied by symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[1]

Ambiguous Loss

This type of grief occurs when there is no clear resolution or closure, such as in cases of missing persons, dementia, or unresolved conflicts. Ambiguous loss can lead to feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and a prolonged grieving process.

These different types of grief illustrate the diverse range of experiences that can evoke grief. It’s essential to recognise and validate these varied forms of grief – and the varied emotional effects that they can have.

Understanding Emotional Numbness in Grief Through Nervous System Theory

From a nervous system perspective, emotional numbness can be understood as a sophisticated adaptive response aimed at self-preservation in the face of overwhelming emotions associated with grief.

Grief, causing intense stress, triggers a cascade of physiological and psychological responses mediated by the nervous system. When confronted with profound loss, the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for initiating the body’s fight-or-flight response, may perceive the emotional distress as a threat to one’s well-being.

Particularly when a loss happens suddenly, it can feel like too much to deal with, overriding the nero-cortex’s capacity for rationality, and the limbic system’s capacity to feel the intensity and entirety of emotions. In such instances, we are left with the instinctual urge to fight, flee, or freeze.[2]

When stuck in freeze, the numbing of emotions serves as a buffer against intense and potentially destabilising feelings such as sadness, anger, and despair, allowing individuals to create a psychological distance from the pain of their loss.

By temporarily dampening emotional reactivity, individuals can regain a sense of emotional equilibrium and inner stability, providing a respite from the relentless onslaught of grief. In this way, emotional numbness functions as a form of psychological self-defence, enabling individuals to navigate the turbulent waters of grief while preserving their mental and emotional integrity.

While this numbing response may offer temporary relief from overwhelming emotions, it is important to recognise that it is not a long-term solution for coping with grief. Suppressing emotions can impede the grieving process and hinder emotional healing in the long run. If the energy generated by the stress of a sudden loss is not processed, it can get in the way of healing and integration of their loss into their lives.

There is no timeline in which this must happen. However, what is important is that somatic strategies accompany the journey out of emotional numbness. When the body remains trapped in a state of sympathetic nervous system activation, instinctual processes still rule, making it difficult to engage the limbic system and neocortex.

Somatic Strategies For Parasympathetic Activation

To alleviate emotional numbness after grief, incorporating strategies that activate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system can be particularly beneficial. Here are some somatic approaches that specifically target these systems:

Deep Breathing Exercises

Engage in diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing techniques to stimulate the vagus nerve and elicit the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Focus on slow, rhythmic breaths, inhaling deeply through the nose and exhaling slowly through the mouth. This practice helps regulate heart rate and promotes a sense of calm and groundedness.

Vagal Toning Techniques

Practise specific exercises designed to tone and regulate the vagus nerve, such as humming, chanting, or singing. These vocalisations stimulate the muscles of the throat and activate the vagal pathways, promoting relaxation and reducing emotional numbness.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Systematically tense and release different muscle groups in the body, starting from the feet and working your way up to the head. This technique promotes physical relaxation and signals to the brain that it is safe to switch from a state of stress to one of rest and recovery, activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

Self-soothing Touch

Incorporate gentle touch or self-massage techniques to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote emotional regulation. Place your hand over your heart or abdomen and apply gentle pressure while breathing deeply, fostering a sense of safety and comfort.

Moving Towards Healing

Emotional numbness following a traumatic loss is completely normal, it is a natural and protective strategy that our brains deploy to protect us from the intensity and overwhelm of grief. In the aftermath of a loss, trust your response and know it has nothing to do with your capacity for emotional regulation, or connection to the person, relationship, situation, or wherever has been lost.


[1] Boelen PA, Olff M, Smid GE. Traumatic loss: Mental health consequences and implications for treatment and prevention. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2019 Apr 15;10(1):1591331. doi: 10.1080/20008198.2019.1591331. PMID: 33178405; PMCID: PMC7593703.

[2] Porges, S W. “Orienting in a defensive world: mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage. A Polyvagal Theory.” Psychophysiology vol. 32,4 (1995): 301-18. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.1995.tb01213.x

A circular logo with a teal background features "Khiron Clinics" in bold, white letters and "GLOBAL TRAUMA RECOVERY" in smaller white text below. Above the text is an abstract, white, spiral design, emphasizing its role as a leading trauma clinic.

Global Trauma Recovery Center

Recommended by the World’s Leading Trauma Experts

We help people find hope again by uncovering and treating the root causes of their mental health issues. Our cutting edge nervous-system based treatments are delivered in both outpatient and residential settings by clinicians who have been trained by the world’s leading trauma experts.

Download the Brochure

Discover Our Innovative Trauma Recovery Pathway

Find out more about how we treat, what we treat, our clinics, pricing and more.

Discover Our Innovative Trauma Recovery Pathway

Find out more about how we treat, what we treat, our clinics, pricing and more.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.