Comfortably Numb

When you stub your toe on the table or whack your arm on the bloody door handle again, the cells in the part of your body are damaged by the impact, they send a message to the brain by way of electrical currents through the spinal cord and into the middle part of the brain, a part called the dorsal posterior insula. You then say “Ow!” (or something more colourful) and feel pain in the area.

The reason for the pain is to let you know that something has happened, and that part of you needs to be treated with care until the body has done its job and healed itself.

When you feel emotional pain, it is processed in the same areas of the brain as physical pain. When you think about that, it shouldn’t really come as much as a surprise, after all, we use very similar language to talk about both kinds of pain. Heart-wrenching, a kick in the guts and so on. Emotional pain is a real and visceral pain.

The message from the body is really the same – there is some damage here, please be gentle with this until it’s been processed and healed.

But we do the same thing to emotional pain as we do with physical pain. We numb it out.

With physical pain we take ibuprofen, paracetamol and things like that. (Or something stronger if the pain is bad.) But blocking out all of the pain can be detrimental if we end up missing the message to take care. We end up doing more damage to a weakened area rather than giving the body time to heal.

With emotional pain we also numb. We distract ourselves with TV or social media, we drink, we stuff our faces with chocolate. We do whatever it takes to not have to feel the pain.


The difference with emotional pain is that as there are no damaged cells for the body to heal, the body can’t crack on with it without us. We need to be involved in the processing. We can numb for as long as we like, but at some point, we’re going to have to do the work. It’ll still be waiting for us.

That’s not to say that a little bit of numbing can’t be helpful. Sometimes you’re still a little close to the event and need a bit more recovery time before you get started. Sometimes you’ve been processing and healing from other things and need a time out. Pausing is not the problem. Believing that the numbing is fixing the problem is the problem.

And that’s no different than it is for physical pain. Pain killers don’t fix pain, but they don’t half make it more bearable. Paracetamol doesn’t heal anything. It just blocks the pain signals while the body does the work to fix the issue.

And in the same way you don’t expect to heal all physical pain without the help of a professional, if you need the help of a professional to heal your emotional pain, that’s fine too. All you have to do is ask.

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