Numb after depression - cause, name for it?
November 6, 2016 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Can long-term depression cause numbness? Is there a word for this?

I had depression from 12-40 (i didn't know it was depression then) and then a massive breakdown after i lost all my reasons for living. After six months of excruciating pain i learned to suppress all thinking and 'cope' this way, but my ability to feel hasn't come back. My emotional responsiveness was intense and immediate, especially to people, but has revived only within the range from pleasant to tedious. When i was painfully depressed, i was usually in excruciating pain but could also feel intense joy and happiness at times too. Now i've lost the pain and the other feelings. There's a constant nagging fear and pain that only breaks through when i'm not actively suppressing it or distracted, but 99% of the time i'm asleep, working or entertained, so it's infrequent. (When I lost feeling, i also lost my intense and vivid imagination, most of my intelligence, all hope, the ability to believe what i did affected what happened to me, most memories, lower iq stuff like mental arithmatic, spelling and short-term memory, and ability to cope with even the slightest change, if this helps identify the symptom.)

I have read many allusions to long-term depression causing changes to brain chemistry and numb emotions, but no term for this, explanation of how it happens (experiential or scientific) or other information. I would like to understand what happened to me, even if i can't change it, and this is the thing I would really like to know about most.
posted by maiamaia to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The terms you are looking for are probably "anhedonia" and "low affect". Note that low affect is generally indicative of current dysthymia or depression. You're also describing a lack of concentration, and maybe some amount of dissociation.

It really doesn't sound like your depression is in the past, it has just shifted in presentation. I hope you have access to treatment and aren't just white-knuckling through this.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:57 AM on November 6, 2016 [21 favorites]

Response by poster: I know i have anhedonia and apathy by wikipedia's definition, but there's no books, internet etc i can find that say what to do with it and i've been asking the mental health people private and public for four years and still got no information or diagnosis and i live isolated rural. But i have occasionally read hints online about a change in the brain or emotions after long-term. I don't mean, a term for numbness, but, for this kind of numbness because my emotions got worn out and something inside me snapped, broke, stopped working. I always kept picking myself up and trying again, over and over for decades, then one day it snapped and i couldn't, like elastic goes, absolute emotional inertia. I call it emotional exhaustion but the mental health say it's not a thing. Thanks
posted by maiamaia at 10:23 AM on November 6, 2016

I have so been there so many times. Despite your living in a rural area, please do NOT try to think or wait your way out of this. Please find a way to locate and use professional help.
posted by jtexman1 at 10:37 AM on November 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

I agree with Lyn Never--it sounds to me very much like you are still very depressed. Whatever treatment you are getting is not working. You are still suffering and you deserve better care. If you're in the U.S., talk with Crisis Chat online to explore your feelings and get help. (In case you're worried, you don't have to be actively suicidal for this.)
posted by praemunire at 10:43 AM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I can't get help. I've spent four years trying non-stop. It's not that i can't go to the mental health, it's that every thing i say they just say 'strange!' 'aren't we all numb in different ways?' etc. No information from books or autism or mental health forums.

The emotional side doesn't bother me, it's the not having a clue what's happening to me that does: i want to know what this is and what to do about it. If i can find out about this brain change that happens, that's somewhere i can start!
posted by maiamaia at 11:06 AM on November 6, 2016

It's not that i can't go to the mental health, it's that every thing i say they just say 'strange!' 'aren't we all numb in different ways?' etc.

Who the fsck are you seeing for therapy? I've never been encountered by such nonsense twaddle before. Trust me, if you're numb to the world, you're depressed. Unless that was some sort of "challenge the statement" type of therapy, I'd say you need to keep trying find someone you can work with. That or get in the face of the next therapist who gives you that line and give him a reality check about numbness and depression.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:13 AM on November 6, 2016 [9 favorites]

Yeah, that's the sort of response you'd get from old-school Freudian psychotherapy, and maybe from pastoral counseling, and some general physicians can be entirely useless on this topic, but you should not be getting from a trained modern therapist.

But if what you want to focus on is the brain chemistry, talk to a psychiatrist and put together a medication plan. Do your research into terms like serotonin and dopamine, and stay away from the term "numbness" because that's a description of a physical condition.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:20 AM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not a professional, just someone who has had some similar struggles. One, I'm really sorry that you feel this way. It's understandable to feel frustrated, defeated, and confused about what's happening within you. This is a combination of physical, psychological, and emotional issues, so I don't think there is one simple answer to your query. I think that with the proper care, work, and attention, your memory and imagination may come back.

If you have the time, this video by Dr. Robert Sapolsky, winner of the MacArthur "Genius" grant at age 30 for his work on baboon social groups, addresses just what you're describing. Dr. Sapolsky, based out of Stanford, has committed his professional career to answering the questions you're asking. I watched it over and over again when I was barely able to lift my head up from my desk in university, and simply by validating my state, it helped me immensely- I learned I wasn't crazy, and that there are people out there looking for solutions to your very problems.

I have no idea if this will help you or anyone but me, but I have developed the following 'cognitive' strategies to help alleviate some of my symptoms (in addition to a whole host of other mechanisms):
1. I validate my own experience, internally. Saying, "I'm in pain, I'm in pain, I'm in pain, I'm crying, I'm sad, this hurts" to myself helps me. I give my pain a "face" and treat it like an injured animal that I need to take care of, love, and give warmth to.
2. When I experience specific bodily pain (which is a key feature to MY depression, though not everyone's), I "send my thoughts" to that part of my body. This sounds totally nuts, I know, but I imagine my brain 'touching' the parts of my body that hurt. Not sure I can even explain this. But because pain stems from the mind, I find this helpful.
3. I remember that while my situation is totally unique, there are millions of other people who experience something at least somewhat akin to what I am experiencing. I am not an alien; this is a part of the human struggle. And that makes me feel less alone.
4. I hold my breath and count to five. Then another five. Then another five. Then, long, slow exhale.
5. I drink a giant glass of water, even if I don't register myself as thirsty. Can't hurt!
6. Forums- many depression forums. Read the ones you like the best.
7. Stretching. Again, I know this is a pathetic solution to your very severe struggle, but "getting in touch"- literally- with my body helps me to stay sentient, emotionally.

I really have no idea if this is helpful.

I'm sorry that you're going through this. You don't deserve it, and it's not your fault.
posted by erattacorrige at 11:42 AM on November 6, 2016 [13 favorites]

Not that this is a complete explanation, but I found that some antidepressants can cause emotional numbness. Lexapro made me gain ten pounds in a month and not care about anything.
posted by mneekadon at 11:50 AM on November 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Just to add: the Sapolsky video linked above addresses the "low IQ" concerns you have. It's commonly an effect of depression.
posted by rhizome at 12:25 PM on November 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Stress can be a form of trauma, the symptoms you describe very specifically sound like physical trauma or injury to your (brain's?) functioning.

I'm pretty sure there are studies about physical injury from emotional pain, and you can probably google this now that I've given you the clues...

Just wanted to say that I also thought you sound like you need to see a medical doctor. I was wondering if you aren't experiencing heavy metal exposure from an environmental source or something similar. Your case sounds so extreme, I'm wondering if the cause isn't something physical. At the very least you should push to see a neurologist or similar. This doesn't add up and you should seek further specialized medical care.
posted by jbenben at 12:49 PM on November 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

See a good Endocrinologist. Be sure you don't have hypothyroidism. Be sure you don't have diabetes, and actual peripheral numbness. Get a tox screen to make sure you don't have lead poisoning, or some other environmental malady. If you live in a home that was ever a meth lab, you can have physical consequences. So if all that turns up nothing, get aerobic for 20 minutes, three times a week. Do that for starters. Insist this for yourself. When I had situational depression I was told that getting aerobic for 20 minutes, three times a week, would do as much as an antidepressant, (this was from my physician.) Then learn about breath of fire, as a part of a short floor exercise routine, so that your body gets used at full throttle, for a few minutes per day. Then start treating your body well, take a long bath, twice a week. Make an outrageous meal for yourself at least once a week, and participate with your self. Disassociation is one reason for numbness, and so you must associate. Then you will find the resistance to this is your pain, and you have to be brave about that, and respect your hurts, and be good enough to yourself to acknowledge them, and take yourself past them. There is not a magic pill for this, it requires a reinvestment in self. If this is just in time for middle age, or menopause, then find a good gyn to help as well. You deserve the best you have to offer. Sometimes you have to be the one that offers.
posted by Oyéah at 2:08 PM on November 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

Another vote for seeing a good doctor, physical doctor. I'd start with an internist myself. There are various genetic disorders and diseases that can cause the feelings you describe. How has your diet been over the years? Is there a family history of poor mental or physical health in middle and old age?
posted by fshgrl at 2:21 PM on November 6, 2016

Depersonalization can sometimes cause a feeling of numbness. In fact, it has been shown to severely dampen emotional responses to aversive stimuli, like that which invoked disgust, fear, or anxiety in control subjects (study linked here). In another study, people with depersonalization showed very little response to happy and sad faces in comparison to controls (study linked here).

I was depressed for most of my life, and even when I thought I was no longer depressed, I had really strong depersonalization. I didn't know it at the time until I started a new medication (not related to depersonalization) which severely diminished those feelings and my feelings of depression and I felt normal for the first time since I was a child. Unfortunately, not a lot of psychologists or even doctors seem to know much about the condition. I don't know why, but it is rarely talked about in literature about psychology or psychiatry and I think it is more common than typically reported in the literature.

It probably wouldn't hurt to go to a medical doctor and make sure everything is physically in check. From the wiki article I linked earlier:
If depersonalization is a symptom of neurological disease, then diagnosis and treatment of the specific disease is the first approach. Depersonalization can be a cognitive symptom of such diseases as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis (MS), neuroborreliosis (Lyme disease), or any other neurological disease affecting the brain.
There is no known treatment for depersonalization itself but this journal article mentions SSRI and lamotrigine in combination as a potential treatment. Also, from a previous question, I see you are in the UK; there is a research unit for Depersonalization at Maudsley Hospital in London. Maybe you might try contacting them if a screening by a medical doctor or neurologist doesn't turn up anything?
posted by sevenofspades at 2:37 PM on November 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

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