Feeling numb can mean that the self has lost its physical presence, or in an emotional sense, feelings have become blunted. These are both different constructs of loss for which we are compelled to seek an answer, often causing great angst. To step out of the normal sense of self is profound, difficult to define and causes suffering, whereby one has lost his or her role.
Physical numbness, if we can say this, will usually be described in terms of a body region feeling different. Altered body sense is a common finding in persisting pain states and in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In extreme situations, an out of body experience can be described where the person views themselves from an outsider’s perspective, in the third person. Often though, one refers to numbness as an area with reduced or no sensation. This can be objective such as when a stimulus (eg/ a pin prick; a light brush) is applied to the body surface and the sensation is lacking; or subjective when an area is felt to be numb yet a stimulus can be felt normally.
Although numbness in the the body is not painful per se, it is often tarnished with an aversive element that is described as unpleasant. This seems to be a particular issue in the extremities; conditions that involve nerves such as Morton’s neuroma. The mismatch between what is physically present and can be seen yet not felt, is difficult to understand and compute until the construct is explained.
An explanation: the body is felt via its physical presence in space, interacting with the immediate environment, yet is ‘constructed’ by networks of neurons in the brain. These neurons or brain regions are integrated, working like superhighways in many cases, thereby enhancing certain experiences or responses. At any given moment, the feelings that we feel and the physical sensations that we experience are a set of responses that the brain judges to be meaningful and biologically useful. The precision with which we sense our physical self and move is determined by accurate brain (cortical) representations or maps of the body. These maps are genetically determined yet moulded with experience, for example the way the hand representation changes in a violinist. Similarly, when pain persists we know that the maps change and thereby contribute to the altered body sense that is frequently described. It is worth noting that patients can be reluctant to charge their altered body experiences for fear of disbelief when in fact they are a vital part of the picture.
Emotional numbness is consistent with physical numbness in the sense of a stunted experience, whereby the expected or normal feeling in response to a situation fails to emerge. Rather, something else happens thereby creating a mismatch between the expected feeling and that which occurs. This experience manifests as a negative and is not discriminatory, affecting a range of emotional responses. A sense of detachment from the world often accompanies the lack of feeling. One could argue that this is a form of protection against feelings of vulnerability where we can also use our physical body, our armour, to shield us from the threat. Of course the threat is down to our own perception of a situation, another example of a brain construct. A situation is a situation but we provide the meaning based upon our own belief system and respond accordingly, often automatically.
Cultivating a normal sense of self is, in my view, the primary aim of rehabilitation and this encompasses both the physical and emotional dimensions. Both are influenced by thoughts, the cognitive dimension, that emerge from our belief system that drives behaviours. Hence, a programme design must reflect the interaction as it presents in the individual, most of the clues residing in the patient’s narrative that we must attend to in great detail. Validating the story and creating meaning is the first step towards a normal sense of self, to be enhanced with specific sensorimotor training and cognitive techniques such as mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfulness per se.
Wider thinking and practice is desperately required in tackling the problem of persisting pain. One of many responses to threat, pain is part of the way in which we protect ourselves along with changes in movement and other drivers to create the conditions for recovery. Sadly, many people ignore or miss these cues in the early stages through being fed inaccurate information about pain and injury. Many common ailments that can become highly impacting and distressing such as irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, pelvic pain, widespread musculoskeletal pain, anxiety, fertility issues and low mood, gradually creep up on us as the sensitivity builds over a period of time; the slow-burners. An answer to these problems that are typically underpinned by central sensitisation and altered immune-endocrine functioning, is to create awareness and habits that do not continually provoke ‘fright or flight’ responses that essentially shut down many systems in readiness for the wild animal that is not present. Actually, the wild animal is the emotional brain that when untamed can and does create havoc through the body, affecting every system.
The ever-evolving science and consequent understanding now puts us in a great position to trigger change. Initially discussing numbness, I have purposely drifted toward a more comprehensive view looking down on the complexity of the problems that we are creating in modern existence, manifesting as common functional pains. As much as we are knowing more and more about these conditions, we are actually describing the workings of the different body systems in response to a perceived threat that may or may not exist. This is always multi-system: nervous, immune, endocrine etc. and all must be considered when we are thinking about a pain response. But let’s not just think about pain as this is one aspect of the problem, one part of the emergent experience for the individual — think movement, think language, think body language, think ‘how can we reduce the threat’ for this individual so as to change their experience of their body responses. It is at this point that we see a shift and it is possible in all of us. We are designed to change and grow and develop, so let’s create the conditions for that change physically, cognitively and emotionally.