Emotional detachment, also known as emotional dissociation or depersonalization, refers to an inability to connect with one’s feelings. People who are emotionally detached may feel disconnected from their emotions, thoughts, and memories. While a certain level of detachment can be healthy at times, extreme or persistent emotional detachment may signal an underlying mental health problem. In this article, we’ll explore the signs, causes, and treatments for emotional detachment disorder.
What is emotional detachment?
Emotional detachment occurs when someone disconnects from their feelings and may seem emotionally “numb.” They often have difficulty experiencing emotions fully and connecting with others on an emotional level. Though detachment can sometimes be a positive coping mechanism in stressful situations, chronic detachment is maladaptive and problematic.
Signs of emotional detachment disorder include:
- Feeling separated from emotions or numb
- Difficulty experiencing love, joy, intimacy, etc.
- Disconnection between thoughts, memories and emotions
- Feeling robotic, apathetic or indifferent
- Problems connecting with others emotionally
- Derealization – feeling detached from surroundings
- Depersonalization – feeling separated from oneself
People with detachment disorder may have trouble forming close relationships. They tend to avoid emotional interactions and prefer to be alone. Everyday experiences may feel foreign or dreamlike due to their detached emotional state.
What causes emotional detachment disorder?
There are several potential causes of chronic emotional detachment:
- Trauma – Experiencing trauma, especially in childhood, can cause a person to detach from emotions as a coping mechanism. Detachment helps create emotional distance from the painful memories.
- Mental health conditions – Disorders like depression, anxiety, PTSD, dissociative disorders, and schizophrenia may involve degrees of emotional numbness and dissociation.
- Personality disorders – People with avoidant, schizoid, or schizotypal personality disorders often have lifelong relationship and emotional difficulties related to detachment.
- Neurological factors – Brain differences in areas that regulate emotions could predispose some people to chronic detachment.
- Drugs and alcohol – Substance abuse can numb emotions and thought processes, leading to dissociative symptoms.
- Chronic stress – Long-term stress and adrenal fatigue taxes the body and mind’s ability to connect with emotions.
In many cases, emotional detachment is a learned coping mechanism to deal with extremely challenging life circumstances. Without treatment, this chronic detachment can develop into a psychological disorder that impairs relationships, work, and overall wellbeing.
Is emotional detachment considered a mental disorder?
Persistent, maladaptive emotional detachment can potentially be diagnosed as a mental health disorder. However, it is not considered a distinct diagnosis in the DSM-5, the handbook used by clinicians to diagnose psychiatric conditions. Instead, chronic detachment may be a prominent symptom or feature of conditions like:
- Depersonalization/derealization disorder – Persistent feelings of being detached from one’s self, emotions, and/or surroundings.
- Dissociative disorders – Disorders like dissociative amnesia and dissociative identity disorder that disrupt memory, identity, and emotional awareness.
- Schizophrenia – Emotional detachment, apathy, and social withdrawal are common in schizophrenic patients.
- Personality disorders – Feelings of isolation, detachment, and emptiness are hallmarks of schizoid, avoidant, and schizotypal PD.
- Major depression – Extreme emotional numbness and anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) can indicate severe depression.
- Complex PTSD – Detachment is a common coping mechanism in those with chronic, repetitive trauma.
Though not an official clinical diagnosis, emotional detachment disorder can significantly impair functioning when chronic. Getting an accurate diagnosis is important in order to find the right treatment approach.
Treatment options for emotional detachment disorder
Treating emotional detachment requires addressing both the psychological and biological factors underlying it. An integrated treatment plan may include:
- Psychotherapy – Talk therapy helps people process traumatic memories, manage symptoms, and reconnect with emotions. EMDR, CBT, and DBT are particularly helpful.
- Medication – Antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and antipsychotics can improve mood and stabilize symptoms.
- Holistic approaches – Activities like mindfulness, yoga, biofeedback, and art therapy enhance emotional awareness.
- Lifestyle changes – Getting enough sleep, nutrition, exercise, and social connection supports mental health.
- Somatic therapy – Techniques like massage help reconnect the mind and body to process “stuck” emotions.
With professional support, even long-standing emotional detachment can be improved. The goal is to process the root causes of dissociation and find healthier ways of relating to emotions.
Coping strategies for emotional detachment
In addition to professional treatment, there are self-help strategies that can start improving emotional awareness and connection:
- Keep a daily emotion journal to tune into feelings.
- Share emotions with trusted loved ones.
- Engage in creative activities like art, music, or writing.
- Spend time in nature and with pets.
- Try grounding techniques when feeling detached.
- Get regular exercise, sleep, nutrition.
- Limit screen time and news consumption.
- Join a support group to feel less alone.
With time and practice, these strategies can help counter the numbness of detachment and renew emotional awareness. However, professional treatment is still recommended for chronic, severe cases.
When to see a doctor
It’s advisable to see a mental health professional if emotional detachment:
- Has persisted for more than a few weeks
- Is significantly impacting relationships and work
- Feels uncontrollable or distressing
- Involves depersonalization/derealization
- Occurs with other psychiatric symptoms
- Has an onset after substance use or head trauma
A doctor can provide an official assessment, diagnose any underlying conditions, and create a treatment plan. Ongoing counseling, medication, group support, or other interventions may be recommended. The earlier emotional detachment is addressed, the more treatable it generally is.
Helping a loved one with emotional detachment
If your loved one is emotionally detached, here are some tips:
- Encourage them to see a doctor, but don’t force it.
- Remind them you are there to talk if they wish.
- Don’t take their detachment personally.
- Suggest gentle activities to do together.
- Help with stress management techniques.
- Offer to accompany them to appointments.
- Provide reassurance and emotional validation.
While you can’t “fix” their detachment for them, your support and understanding can motivate them to seek help and reconnect.
Though not an official diagnosis, chronic emotional detachment constitutes a serious mental health concern when it impairs functioning and wellbeing. Trauma, mental illness, neurological factors, and maladaptive coping mechanisms can all underlie detachment disorder.
Professional treatments like psychotherapy, medication, holistic activities, and lifestyle changes can help people reconnect with their emotions in a healthy way. Support groups and self-care strategies also aid recovery. With proper care, individuals can overcome detachment and regain satisfaction in relationships and life.