Lesson objective:

In this lesson, we define the feeling of numbness following stress and trauma. We also cover the changes that contribute to the emergence of this feeling of numbness.

Changes in behavior after trauma are common due to adjustments and disruptions in our physiology, our thoughts, and our relationships. 

Trauma profoundly affects the entire body. It affects the content, frequency of thoughts, and our overall sense of control. 

The bottom line is that trauma creates   a constant and chronic sense of insecurity, first in the world around us, and then in the world within us. 

By definition, trauma is overwhelming.

And it is somewhat expected that in a constant state of overwhelm, the brain and body may try to ignore, compartmentalize, or reduce certain feelings in order to cope. When everything is disrupted, something has to give.

Trauma can contribute to  , where it is difficult to feel any sort of emotion, positive or negative. It makes sense–when it all becomes too much, it is sometimes easier to feel nothing at all. 

In the context of numbness, the world may seem gray. Little brings you joy. Nothing stimulates you. Few things could make you feel sad or upset. This phenomenon is also called flat affect

Researchers still debate the exact underlying causes of the numbness associated with trauma exposure. We know, however, that some of the changes that occur in the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and in hormone levels (as discussed earlier) affect the brain’s ability to detect possible rewards and pleasure, and then to pursue those rewards and that pleasure. 

We’ve learned that chronic stress and trauma support attentional biases to potential threats, or hypervigilance. The brain and body work together with the best of intentions to make sense and make meaning of the pain that has occurred, and in doing so, they may create elaborate predictions, changes in your thoughts about yourself and others, and even flashbacks and nightmares. All of this leads to frequent dissociation.

In this context, it makes sense that the brain would have a tough time recognizing and then pursuing things that are pleasurable. Activities once enjoyed may be no longer pleasurable. Even human contact and relationships, which may have been a tremendous source of joy previously, may no longer feel rewarding. 

In general, after trauma, certain disruptions in the brain reduce our ability to feel pleasure, thus affecting how we approach, and if we approach at all, certain activities that we once loved. 

To the brain after trauma, the ability to detect and avoid threat is much more important than the need for pleasure and reward.

In other words, after trauma, many of the changes and adaptations that stimulate hypervigilance may also decrease your ability to sense pleasure and reward from daily situations. And in that numbness, we may feel further dissociated.