What is Emotional Detachment?

Introduction

In psychology, emotional detachment, also known as emotional blunting, has two meanings:

  • One is the inability to connect to others on an emotional level; and
  • The other is as a positive means of coping with anxiety.

This coping strategy, also known as emotion focused-coping, is used by avoiding certain situations that might trigger anxiety. It refers to the evasion of emotional connections. Emotional detachment may be a temporary reaction to a stressful situation, or a chronic condition such as depersonalisation-derealisation disorder. It may also be caused by certain antidepressants. Emotional blunting as reduced affect display is one of the negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

Signs and Symptoms

Emotional detachment may not be as outwardly obvious as other psychiatric symptoms. Patients diagnosed with emotional detachment have reduced ability to express emotion, to empathise with others or to form powerful emotional connections. Patients are also at an increased risk for many anxiety and stress disorders. This can lead to difficulties in creating and maintaining personal relationships. The person may move elsewhere in their mind and appear preoccupied or “not entirely present”, or they may seem fully present but exhibit purely intellectual behaviour when emotional behaviour would be appropriate. They may have a hard time being a loving family member, or they may avoid activities, places, and people associated with past traumas. Their dissociation can lead to lack of attention and, hence, to memory problems and in extreme cases, amnesia. In some cases, they present an extreme difficulty in giving or receiving empathy which can be related to the spectrum of narcissistic personality disorder.

In children (ages 4-12 were studied), traits of aggression and antisocial behaviours were found to be correlated with emotional detachment. Researchers determined that these could be early signs of emotional detachment, suggesting parents and clinicians to evaluate children with these traits for a higher behavioural problem in order to avoid bigger problems (such as emotional detachment) in the future.

Causes

Emotional detachment and/or emotional blunting have multiple causes, as the cause can vary from person to person. Emotional detachment or emotional blunting often arises due to adverse childhood experiences, or to psychological trauma in adulthood.

Emotional blunting is often caused by antidepressants in particular selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used in major depressive disorder, and often as an add-on treatment in other psychiatric disorders.

Behavioural Mechanism

Emotional detachment is a behaviour which allows a person to react calmly to highly emotional circumstances. Emotional detachment in this sense is a decision to avoid engaging emotional connections, rather than an inability or difficulty in doing so, typically for personal, social, or other reasons. In this sense it can allow people to maintain boundaries, psychic integrity and avoid undesired impact by or upon others, related to emotional demands. As such it is a deliberate mental attitude which avoids engaging the emotions of others.

This detachment does not necessarily mean avoiding empathy; rather, it allows the person to rationally choose whether or not to be overwhelmed or manipulated by such feelings. Examples where this is used in a positive sense might include emotional boundary management, where a person avoids emotional levels of engagement related to people who are in some way emotionally overly demanding, such as difficult co-workers or relatives, or is adopted to aid the person in helping others.

Emotional detachment can also be “emotional numbing”, “emotional blunting”, i.e., dissociation, depersonalisation or in its chronic form depersonalisation disorder. This type of emotional numbing or blunting is a disconnection from emotion, it is frequently used as a coping survival skill during traumatic childhood events such as abuse or severe neglect. Over time and with much use, this can become second nature when dealing with day to day stressors.

Emotional detachment may allow acts of extreme cruelty and abuse, supported by the decision to not connect empathically with the person concerned. Social ostracism, such as shunning and parental alienation, are other examples where decisions to shut out a person creates a psychological trauma for the shunned party.

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