BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 9, 2021 (edited March 25, 2022)
Definition, symptoms, and causes of emotional detachment
Human behavior is motivated by an endless stream of perceptions, feelings, and thoughts, at both the conscious and the unconscious levels. Our minds consciously and unconsciously process external and internal data, leading to behavioral responses.
Emotions and feelings play an important and essential role in this process. The body reacts chemically to circumstances preparing for the behavioral response, whether approaching opportunity or defending against threats.
Incidents of strong emotional arousal can be discomforting—even painful. The greater the feeling (shifting of bodily functions), the more likely the internal movements will register consciously, leading to cognitive interplay with the feelings. Basically, the feeling becomes an emotion.
Emotional detachment is the adaptation keeping feelings in the unconscious realm.
Emotional detachment is a state of disconnection from our own feelings or the feelings of others.
Is Emotional Detachment Bad?
Emotional detachment is a psychological condition in which a person is not able to fully engage with their feelings or the feelings of others. Emotions play an essential role in our psychological development. Continuous disconnection from this wise source of information stunts growth and limits human connections.
Emotional detachment can be ongoing, a psychological trait in attachment disorders, or the detachment can be a temporary response to an extreme or traumatizing event. Extreme events overwhelm our ability to process the title wave of feeling and psychologically we detach, protecting our fragile psyches from unnecessary damage.
A child psychologically pummeled with emotional abuse adaptively responds through detachment as a protective measure. Detachment is adaptive and protective—good. However, chronic detachment, as mentioned earlier, is not good, hindering growth and connections.
What Causes Emotional Detachment?
Emotional detachment may arise from a variety of causes. Detachment may begin as an adaptive response to extreme or repeated trauma. Genetic predispositions also may contribute to emotional detachment. Like most psychological conditions, typically, there is a blend of both, such as described in the diathesis stress model. Predispositions collide with experience leading to maladaptive conditions.
Emotional detachment may also be purposeful, used as a way to cope, giving greater space for other cognitive functions to assist in determining a wise course of action.
Traumatic events may lead to emotional detachment. Children subject to abuse or neglect may adapt through emotional detachment, using detachment as a means for survival.
Children require a lot of emotional connection from their parents or caregivers. When these needs for belonging are continuously rebuffed or ignored, children may turn off their emotional receptors, lessoning the hurt and disappointment.
Extreme events also may lead to emotional disconnection. While the initial disconnection is adaptive, the lingering emotional distancing may impact overall wellness. Daniel Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles, explains that "excessive parasympathetic branch activity leads to increased energy-conserving processes, manifested as decreases in heart rate and respiration and as a sense of 'numbness' and 'shutting down' within the mind (2020).
Genetic Predispositions and Psychological Conditions
Emotional detachment is a common symptom of some psychological conditions. Conditions often associated with genetic predispositions. These include:
Since most illnesses are measured on a linear scale, only diagnosed in severe cases, we can deduct that most of us have varying levels of genetic predispositions for the diseases and the corresponding symptoms, such as emotional detachment.
Experience interacts with brain structures creating physical adaptations in the connecting fibers of the brain. Bessel van der Kolk, founder and director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts explains, "almost every brain-imaging study of trauma patients finds abnormal activation of the insula. This part of the brain integrates and interprets the input from the internal organs—including our muscles, joints, and balance (proprioceptive) system—to generate the sense of being embodied. The insula can transmit signals to the amygdala that trigger fight/fight responses."
Van der Kolk continues, "being constantly assaulted by, but consciously cut off from, the origin of bodily sensations produces alexithymia: not being able to sense and communicate what is going on with you." Van der Kolk is describing a detachment from bodily experience—an actual physical detachment in communication between the body and conscious experience. He clearly reiterates that "alexithymia, dissociation, and shutdown all involve the brain structures that enable us to focus, know what we feel, and take action to protect ourselves" (2015).
Psychologist Sabine Sonnentag suggests that “psychological detachment” helps maximize recovery during time away from work (2019). The detachment stops the emotional drain, allowing our bodies to recover.
Many events flood our systems with emotion, and we respond reactively. Regulating the heightened arousal through emotional detachment can allow other cognitive appraisals to engage, and assist in determining a wise course of action.
Marty Horowitz suggests when examining ourselves we should strive for "a calm detachment" (2008).
Paul Greenhalgh suggests emotional development demands both connectedness and detachment in his book on emotional growth. "Realness or genuineness implies being personally involved in the relationship with the child, whilst also being able to observe the relationship with detachment" (2015).
Our emotions guide but also interfere. Effectiveness of choice requires an ability to connect with emotions and detach from them, drawing from multiple pools of wisdom. Overly detached or completely drawn into emotion can impede on wellness.
Common Symptoms of Emotional Detachment
Many behavioral and experiential conditions may signal emotional detachment. Some signs to look for include:
Books on this Topic
A Few Words from Flourishing Life Society
Like many concepts, emotional detachment can't be labeled as good or bad. Situational detachment may help us through weighty emotional demands, providing sufficient space to prevent overwhelm from intense arousal. However, consistently disconnecting from emotional messaging interferes with development and relationships. We need emotions. We need cognitions. A flourishing life is skilled at drawing wisdom from both.
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Greenhalgh, P. (2015) Emotional Growth and Learning. Routledge; 1st edition
Horowitz, M. (2008). A Course in Happiness: Mastering the 3 Levels of Self-Understanding That Lead to True and Lasting Contentment. TarcherPerigee; 1st edition
Siegel, D. J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Publishing Group; Reprint edition
Unknown Author (2019). Psychological detachment – how to get the most benefit from your down time. Umbrella. Published 9-28-2019. Accessed 9-9-2021.