How to Avoid Psychic Numbing

It seems as though this past year, when so many terrible, catastrophic events have gone on in the world, Gerry and I have either called each other during the day (if we are apart) or gone into the other room and said, “did you just hear about…” or “oh my gosh, you won’t believe what just happened…” and we process whatever it is with each other. Like so many things in life, when something tragic occurs, socially or even on a personal level, it’s always difficult to understand how things can just continue moving forward. 

I recall February 2017, being at one of the lowest points of my life, grieving, in a deep depression, and the superbowl was on television. I just couldn’t comprehend how a stadium of people were moving on with their lives, this huge event was going on when my life was at such a low point, at such a terrible state. I was talking with a friend this week, of asian descent. I asked her how she was doing, of course, with the news of the horrific murders of the asian women in Atlanta, as well as the asian culture being targeted recently. She said something similar to what I had previously experienced in my time of grief, that she was feeling so low, that she was finding it difficult to work with people who are just moving on with their day as though nothing had occurred, as if the world just keeps moving forward, not considering how she must be feeling; they hadn’t even asked her how she was. I couldn’t even imagine being in her shoes, and my heart sank. 

Those feelings, I have experienced on many levels this past year. I know that, socially, I am someone who finds that when anyone is hurt or de-humanized, I feel as though I hurt as well. I always find it difficult that when we go into a community situation, whether it is work, seeing other people in our neighborhoods, professionally or personally, that some people do not talk about these things. Why do some people not talk about the fact that other humans, people just like us are being hurt, or killed, and not take a moment to stop, take a beat, and have a moment to consider the impact of that? There are some places that do, and really dig into making sure that everyone has an open space to talk about their feelings, and that is wonderful, but it definitely isn’t everywhere, unfortunately. 

I yearn for that. 

I go into situations with other humans, after a terrible event, wanting human interaction, wanting a connection. Often, I get it, whether it’s Gerry, my neighbor, my sister, my mother, but then I go into other situations, often work, or a virtual meeting of some kind, and I am shocked that it just seems as though this terrible event didn’t happen, and I am left feeling like I am in the twilight zone. Like, wait… do they somehow have no clue that these horrific events happened? Not possible, right? I always ask myself, are people who don’t bring it up, apathetic? 

Having someone to process your emotions with is important, but so is having an accountability partner for psychic numbing.

I think, so often, people are so consumed with not wanting to ruffle feathers with being afraid to say the wrong thing, wanting to make everything political, that they forget that we are all still human, and that saying that we can all still feel heartbroken over the loss, the tragedy of an event, is necessary as humans. It brings us together, and honestly, it makes people like me, comforted. 

While searching for ways to cope with situations like this, because let’s not kid ourselves, it seems to come up more often these days, I found a term for it, that I have to believe is something that a large number of people use for these horrific events. It is called psychic numbing. It is a psychological phenomenon that causes some to feel indifferent to the suffering of large numbers of people. Apparently, the more people who die, the more that compassion begins to collapse, which sounds absolutely terrible, and I hope that I never experience this, but studies show that it can happen to anyone. It’s true though, there are some people who don’t relate to any tragedy until it hits home, or unless they have a personal experience with it.

“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

-Mother Teresa

Let’s take the coronavirus, for example.  I recall in the beginning of the virus, before we even hit the loss of 100,000 people on a national level, someone asked me, as I put on a mask, “do you even know anyone who has had covid?” This person was asking in a condescending tone, as if the virus wasn’t real. Don’t get me started on that. There are some people who cannot see the emotional impact of anything until they have a personal tie to a matter, and I begin to see that it is the same when it comes to many issues, tragedies alike. 

Since we cannot control other people, we can only control ourselves, let’s talk about ways that we can avoid psychic numbing, and hope other follow suit:

  1. Stay aware and in the loop. Sure, a constant feed of news is not healthy, but putting blinders on to what is going on in the world isn’t healthy either. I tune into NPR, or BBC news, to try to get an unbiased look at the news, and I limit it. 
  2. Volunteer. We talk about this so much, but advocacy, being of service, especially for those in need outside of just your area and your likeness. Getting outside of your comfort zone when volunteering opens you up to the struggles that others have, that you don’t even realize. 
  3. Avoid burnout. If you are a longtime follower of ours, you know that Gerry and I talk a lot about our past with burnout, and avoiding it. If you are at the burnout stage, studies show that you may be more prone to psychic numbing. Now, me, I when I am at burnout stage, I just fall apart at the drop of a hat, but that’s me. Everyone is different. 
  4. Lastly, have someone call you out on your lack of caring, or apathetic persona. Have an accountability person in your life that you have designated to tell you when you begin to exhibit a lack of caring about other humans, co-workers, or people in your life. It may not be the case, but if you start to exhibit it, you may be showing signs of psychic numbing, and really, do you want to portray that to the people around you?

At the end of the day, being heavily involved in the emotions of my fellow humans and the social issues that affect us is not going to change. Similarly, I am not going to be able to change the feelings nor actions of those who have a lack of response to those events. What I can do is, for my own wellness, learn to cope with these circumstances and maneuver through them as they come along. If anyone has any tips with how they handle similar situations, I am open to suggestions. 

4 thoughts on “How to Avoid Psychic Numbing

  1. It sounds like you have great support in Gerry! This year has been mental, but I think it’s so important to look after ourselves and watch out for things like burnout!

    Katie |

  2. This hits home. I am very empathetic and can easily become overwhelmed. I am finding myself limiting national news to one time per week. I’ve found I’m less stressed and don’t really miss much. Check your news on Friday and you’ll sum up the week in an hour.

Let us know what you think!