Numbness & Overwhelm: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Numbness & Overwhelm: Two Sides of the Same Coin


Let’s talk about numbness and overwhelm being two sides of the same coin.

We have been dealing with a pandemic, and as a New York City resident this has been a reality for us for the last two and a half months.  I have found in many conversations with people that this pandemic has created new issues and new dynamics but it has also amplified old issues and old dynamics.

One thing that has amplified for many people is the way we process our emotions; the way we deal with stress, the way we deal with uncertainty, the way we deal with anxiety. Sometimes, when we’re dealing with a very intense situation where there’s questions about survival—illness, death, toilet paper—people don’t have the space to process their emotions and they can feel numb.

Sometimes, as time passes you’re not so numb anymore and all the emotions start coming to the surface and you feel overwhelmed. In that way, the numbness and overwhelm can work in a cycle.

Here’s an analogy: You’re sitting at your computer and you send a few print jobs to your printer. Your printer is offline. What’s going to happen? Nothing’s going to come out of your printer. But let’s say in a day, week, or month you turn it on, all those print jobs in the queue will come out. It can be overwhelming—many jobs are coming out, hopefully you have a sturdy receiving tray and you may have to stand there to deal with the onslaught.

Sometimes when we’re in survival mode a part of us goes offline. But once we’re not offline and not just worrying about toilet paper, the emotions come up in an overwhelming way, also known as “flooding”. I have found this happen especially for my clients who are healthcare workers on the front lines. Working in medicine, there’s a certain about of emotional detachment that is necessary for the job, otherwise you’d walk around all day being a hot mess. But in this pandemic, where there’s been unprecedented intensity and stress- and little time for self-care- it’s easy to go into a numb place. Until it’s numb no longer.

My message here is that it’s really important for us to have spaces where we can process our emotions and not just push them off for later.  Yes, numbness may serve us in some ways, but when it runs out, then what? And, when we are numb to our distressing emotions, we can also be cut off from experiencing our positive ones too and end up missing out on enjoying the nourishing things in our lives.

All our feelings make sense. Some of them may seem odd or come at odd times, but it all makes sense. And when we find ways to process them, perhaps with others, taking time to journal, exercise, meditation- whatever works for you- we can find ways to not live in the extremes of numbness and overwhelm, and be able to find a middle ground.