Emotional numbing in posttraumatic stress disorder: current and future research directions

Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2002 Apr;36(2):198-204. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1614.2002.01002.x.


Objective: Despite being understudied and poorly understood relative to the chronic fear, anxiety and other aversive emotional states that occur in the immediate aftermath of trauma, emotional numbing has become a core defining feature of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Method: This paper seeks to briefly review the literature bearing on these seemingly disparate emotional responses to trauma as well as theoretical accounts of emotional numbing that have been proffered to date. We then offer an alternative theory of post-traumatic emotional functioning and review empirical support for this model.

Result: The experience of trauma produces very intense emotions such as overwhelming fear, horror, and anxiety, and these reactions can linger for a lifetime. Many trauma survivors also report restrictions in their emotional experience - a phenomenon most commonly referred to as emotional numbing. In contrast to previous accounts of posttraumatic emotional functioning our model posits that individuals with PTSD have difficulty expressing positive emotions as a result of re-experiencing states. We further argue that patients with PTSD are capable of experiencing and expressing the full range of emotions that were available pretraumatically.

Conclusion: Our model holds that individuals with PTSD are not, in fact, 'emotionally numb' as a result of traumatic experience. Rather, PTSD is associated with hyperresponsivity to negatively valenced emotional stimuli. Consequently, patients with PTSD require more intense positive stimulation to access the full complement of appetitive or pleasant emotional behaviour.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*