From numbness to avoidance: 5 signs you're 'emotionally coasting' right now
In a Better Homes and Gardens interview, Harry Styles said he had the tendency to “emotionally coast” through life – where he described feeling detached, numb and overwhelmed by his feelings and life experiences.
And, honestly, it might just be the best way to describe the collective emotion of 2022.
Because while everything is ‘back’ (travel! Holidays! Festivals! Weddings!), there’s also the very real and very obvious feeling of mental exhaustion when it comes to the relentless bad news cycle (see: war, protests, shootings) raging right before our eyes.
If you’re anything like us, you might be feeling like it’s becoming harder and harder to know where to place your energy and care. To actually feel things.
Enter: ‘Emotional coasting’.
Watch: Signs that mean you should seek help for your mental health.
Styles told BHG that therapy allowed him to open up, better connect with his emotions and experiences, and live more authentically.
He said, “I think that accepting living, being happy, hurting in the extremes, that is the most alive you can be. Losing it crying, losing it laughing – there’s no way, I don’t think, to feel more alive than that.”
So, what exactly is emotional coasting and why do we do it? And more importantly, how do we stop?
Here, we ask an expert in psychology to tell us everything we need to know.
What is 'emotional coasting'?
“Emotional coasting is a term that encompasses what I call the “bland band”, where consciously and/or unconsciously we strip our lives of the wider emotional spectrum,” explains psychotherapist Lissy Abrahams.
“This means experiences might be felt as ‘nice’ or ‘a bit tough’ but never really ‘incredible’ or ‘heartbreaking’.”
The reason behind this? According to Abrahams, it’s almost like a defence mechanism when we know we’re not going to be able to process difficult feelings or experiences.
“We do this because we haven’t developed a sufficient distress tolerance to sit with feelings outside of the ‘bland band’,” she said.
“So, emotional coasting is used to rein in emotional experiences, so we feel safer. If we haven’t learnt how to tolerate more extreme emotions, like joy and excitement or distress and fear, then we typically look for ways to dampen them.”
In effect, this helps protect us from being overwhelmed or dealing with certain emotions we’re not prepared to take on.
“The problem is that the way we dampen them is by either clipping our internal state (living in the emotional bland band) or by using something in the external world as a crutch (like drugs or alcohol, spending money, over-eating, or restricting food, or by using ego defence mechanisms like denial or compartmentalisation).”
What are some common signs you might be 'emotionally coasting'?
Does all this sound a little… familiar? Don’t worry. You’re not alone.
As Abrahams tells us, it’s something we’ll all go through at some point in our lives – especially after the past few years.
“It’s impossible to feel every feeling to the full extent. Imagine needing to focus on your work following a fight with your partner and not having any tools up your sleeve to do so. We’d end up plagued by every single feeling and achieve nothing for months on end!”
If you’re unable to maintain your usual drive and care for life and all its experiences, Abrahams said there are four important questions you need to ask yourself.
– Do I really let myself become excited? What language do I use around this?
– Do I move away from people when they are ecstatic or joyous?
– When I’m sad, do I minimise or compartmentalise my feelings to move away from the sadness?
– When I’m sad, do I look outside of myself for the answer? Is this to numb the pain? Is it to distract from the pain?
Okay. How many of these did you say ‘yes’ to?
“As a therapist, I know we can’t just keep stuffing feelings down and, at some point, symptoms will erupt either mentally or physically,” said Abrahams.
Meaning? You need to be aware of the key signs and symptoms, so you’re able to stop it from affecting your life negatively.
Some common signs of emotional coasting include –
1. Being busy
Are you using work as a distraction? “Whilst being busy can help at times, we need to be careful we are not over-using busyness to bypass feelings,” said Abrahams.
See: Avoiding any form of emotional processing by doing absolutely anything else.
“This is where we avoid the full emotional experience by attending to pursuits that are deemed worthwhile, such as mowing the lawn, working later, or using the gym,” said Abrahams.
According to Abrahams, it’s common for many people to unconsciously avoid the emotional impact by putting it deep down in our emotional vault and pretty much just throwing away the key. “This helps us feel we are no longer in contact with it – despite the fact it still resides in us,” she adds.
“We can downplay our emotions. For example, when we have been unexpectedly broken up with, we may minimise by stating, ‘He didn’t mean that much to me anyway’ or ‘I’m overthinking this – it’s simple – it’s over’.”
5. Blocking or numbing
Instead of using coping strategies, many people will turn to other things to replace this feeling, using it as a crutch to avoid acknowledging or processing their feelings.
This involves “using any action outside of ourselves to block or numb the pain,” said Abrahams. “This could be through drugs or alcohol, self-harm, gambling…”
How can you stop yourself from 'emotionally coasting'?
Abrahams said, “It’s critical for all of us who emotionally coast to increase our window of tolerance for emotions outside of the ‘bland band’. Life will throw us curve balls, and always when we least expect it.”
Being aware of this behavior and identifying the reasons behind it (that is, what you’re trying to protect yourself from by numbing your emotions) and how it impacts your life, can help you move forward and better process your emotions and life experiences going forward.
But just remember – learning to stop ’emotional coasting’ is not a quick fix, and it can take some time in order to avoid getting overwhelmed with emotions.
According to Abrahams, to prevent emotional coasting, it’s important to develop three things:
1. Language awareness
It seems like a small change, but Abrahams said that becoming aware of whether your language minimises your emotional experiences is more important than you might think.
“Do you say the meal is ‘satisfying’ when you may mean ‘delicious’? Allow yourself freedom to turn the volume up. Do you say ‘a bit disappointing’ when your pet has died or are you allowed to be ‘grief-filled’?”
2. Body awareness
“Our body often provides the truth about how we are feeling – without the story in our mind,” said Abrahams.
Read: Listen to your body.
“Focus on your heart – is it beating more rapidly suddenly? Why? Information and sensations arise constantly from our body, and this can reveal that we’re not actually emotionally coasting.”
“For example, our body will reveal if we are fearful, excited, or disappointed – it won’t coast. We can’t trick our body out of its experience, so tune in to enhance the colour of your emotional life.”
3. Develop distress tolerance.
“It’s critical for our mental and physical health to be able to sit with the highs and lows of life without needing to do something with them. Many of us need to increase our ability to tolerate distress.”
Going to therapy and seeking help from a professional is a great way to “increase your emotional range and truly understanding why you became someone who emotionally coasts in the first place.”
“This, alongside mindfulness techniques, can help you develop a greater ability to tolerate a greater range of emotions that will erupt through life’s curveballs.”
If you would like to learn more from Lissy Abrahams, check out her e-book on what makes a couple’s relationship happy.
Lissy Abrahams is part of Mamamia’s health expert panel. She is a leading individual and couple psychotherapist who has dedicated her career to helping hundreds of clients navigate life’s obstacles and challenges. Lissy studied psychology in Sydney and then completed her Masters in couples psychotherapy at the internationally renowned Tavistock Relationships. Here, she worked therapeutically with couples, as well as lectured and tutored trainee counsellors.
Lissy founded and manages the Sydney-based therapy clinic, Heath Group Practice, and works therapeutically with clients around the world. She has published academic work and launched a successful online course to help partners stop fighting and communicate respectfully.
Lissy believes we all have the capacity to improve our lives and relationships with the right knowledge and practical strategies. Her mission is to help as many people as possible transform their lives by creating happier and more loving relationships.
Feature image: Getty