“Why do I feel dead inside?” It’s a question plenty of people ask in jest once in a while. From the self-deprecating millennials of TikTok to the nihilistic characters in our favorite movies and shows, the “dead inside” explanation is society’s favorite way to express sadness so deep it feels like it’s killing us.
And yet, feeling dead inside in the real world is a sign of something altogether different.
If you’ve ever felt this way yourself, you’re probably familiar with the numbness we’re describing — an awareness that you should feel something deeply painful but actually feel nothing at all.
Nothingness, deadness and sadness — it’s all the same, right? Wrong.
Feeling dead inside doesn’t mean you’ve maxed out your emotions. It’s a sign you’re not feeling them at all. And that can be dangerous to your mental health in the long term.
If you’re feeling dead inside right now, consider what you really mean by that. Because depending on how you describe the feeling when asked to elaborate, it could indicate very different things.
Wondering what’s going on? We’re here to help you figure it out.
First, let’s get on the same page about that dead-inside feeling and what it represents.
When someone says they feel dead inside, they’re typically trying to express a symptom of depression. But while the average person may think of depression as an unfathomable, clinical sadness, it’s actually a more complicated collection of feelings.
Someone with depression may feel not just sad but also hopeless, empty, worthless and unable to function. They may not feel like eating, sleeping, working or taking part in activities they usually enjoy.
They may even feel like they want to die and consider it a potential “solution” to the problem. Spoiler alert: it isn’t. If you’re feeling this way, talk to someone about those feelings now.
Another thing that may be felt by people with depression is persistent feelings of emptiness or numbness — the absence of any feelings whatsoever.
People who feel empty or dead inside are likely experiencing a different outcome of major depression or another mood disorder. But it’s important to note that the feeling alone isn’t enough to diagnose depression.
Sure, if you were broken up with a few hours ago, you have every reason to be temporarily emotionally unbalanced, cry your heart out, or just feel totally shut down. But when that feeling becomes the default setting, it’s a sign you may have a depressive disorder.
Emotional emptiness can be caused by a number of triggering factors. We might feel empty inside because something is so emotionally crushing that our brains choose not to engage with it.
We can also feel empty when something that could bring us joy isn’t available or accessible, like if a person you love is unreachable.
At its core, the emptiness is a disconnect with your emotions, often self-imposed by a part of your brain trying to protect you from pain. There’s a term for this weird ability your brain has to protect itself from emotional pain: depersonalization.
Like many other symptoms of depression, feeling dead inside doesn’t typically “go away” on its own — it most often requires treatment.
Of course, there are many types of treatment available. But in most cases, one or multiple therapies are required for recovery because depression has a tendency to get worse the longer you ignore it.
You probably already know this if you’ve ever had a toothache or a sprained ankle, but your body’s signals of discomfort are like check-engine lights: when you see one, you should make it a priority to have someone look at what’s going on.
The same is true for mental health. And while the warning lights may be less obvious, they’re equally important for your overall well-being.
You can and should treat depression and address these empty, hopeless feelings. And there are several safe and effective ways to do that.
The challenge is motivating that dead-inside part of you to zombie its way to treatment. But once there, you’ll have access to therapy, medication and expert advice on how to make impactful lifestyle changes that can improve your mental health.
Speaking of lifestyle changes, diet, exercise, sleep and social interactions all play a huge role in mental health. If you’ve been neglecting these things, it might be time to put them front and center on your priorities list.
You may also want to explore therapy options. Forms of psychotherapy like interpersonal therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can help the part of you that feels nothing learn to feel again by rejecting thoughts that are negative and empty. It can also help you work through whatever caused your mental shut-down in the first place.
Lastly, medication can be effective in the treatment of depression. If you’re struggling, antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may provide the chemical support you need.
These medications work by balancing your brain’s levels of serotonin, a powerful neurotransmitter that acts a little like those bumpers in a bowling alley. The ball is your mood, the gutters are depressive episodes and the serotonin is there to make sure the former never ends up in the latter.
Above all, and regardless of the type of treatment you seek, support is essential — the professional kind, that is. What we’re trying to say is every treatment plan should start with adding a mental health professional to your team.
Someone on the team has to feel alive, after all.
Traumatic experiences and unpleasant life circumstances can hit so hard that they numb us. But if feelings of emptiness and emotional numbing are chronic feelings or your quality of life is suffering, it’s time to get help.
Why do you feel dead inside? Is it a recent breakup? A lost job? Death in the family? If you can trace your current state of mind back to a particular trigger or event, it may help in the treatment process.
But don’t worry — you don’t have to figure that out right now. In fact, your time is better spent getting in touch with a healthcare provider who can help you find those answers.
A healthcare provider can also assist with finding the right medication and therapy type to create a treatment plan tailor-fit to your unique needs.
Finding the right person can be a challenge, which is why our online therapy platform is a great place to start. There, you can match with professionals and find someone with the “X-factor” chemistry you’re looking for — the kind that promotes trust and makes you feel safe.
If you’re not ready to take the therapy step, we can still help. Our mental health resources are an excellent resource for exploring topics and getting questions answered.
You’ll feel alive again if you start down the road to recovery. It may take weeks, months or longer, but it will happen. You owe it to yourself to live the best, most meaningful life possible, and seeking support is the first step.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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