The Hidden Costs of Numbing Out: Understanding and Overcoming Our Coping Mechanisms

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No one wants to be uncomfortable or feel pain. We all crave those moments of pleasure and contentment. Personally, I have several strategies to make my life more bearable and methods I use to numb out. My brain just goes on autopilot, and a force comes over me. It’s quite remarkable how the mind tries to shield us from hurt and pain.

However, the very methods our brain uses to numb out can cause more pain long-term—all in an attempt to reduce immediate discomfort. I don’t know about you, but I’m choosing long-term happiness over momentary relief. This hasn’t always been the case. I understand how hard it is to sit in discomfort. This is precisely why I meditate. I train my mind to be okay with feeling uneasy. The key to breaking these behavioral patterns is to recognize them for what they are and then approach them with curiosity, not judgment.

Ask yourself: What is this compulsive or excessive behavior trying to protect me from? What am I attempting to escape?

I numbed out daily during my divorce. I chose not to acknowledge my feelings, my truth, or who I really was. Years of suppressing my self-hatred led me to stay in an abusive marriage. This manifested into a deeply dysfunctional relationship with food, alcohol, my body, and my mind. Numbing out behaviors are typically excessive or involve binging.

Can you relate to that?

We all engage in numbing behaviors, so there’s no room for judgment. Some of us just have different methods. Using sex to numb out doesn’t make you a better human than me using over-exercise.

Now that we got that out of the way — why do we numb out?

It boils down to protection and safety. Sometimes it’s really hard to acknowledge our reality. For example, you might have a job you hate that does nothing to satisfy your needs, wants, and potential. Or you might be stuck in a soul-sucking relationship. Speaking your truth and saying, “This job is killing my dreams,” or “I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore,” likely brings up even more discomfort than the actual problem itself.

When we numb out, we choose to avoid reality because it feels so overwhelming and scary. We run from whatever “it” is. Part of us thinks, “I can’t do this anymore,” so we deflect that discomfort, focusing our attention on something else.

This is where process addictions or substance addictions manifest. Our bodies and minds are not designed to harm us. They are designed to keep us safe, so they protect us by sticking to what we know works. But if you find yourself in a situation that doesn’t feel right, like a job, a relationship, or a health issue, your mind believes change is on the horizon, which can be uncomfortable, and what do we do?

We think, “I don’t want to acknowledge that, so I’m just going to go and eat a piece of cake.”

When we repeatedly do this, we embody these detached, disembodied, disconnected, un-fed versions of our true selves.

What are the main things we might do or turn to in order to numb out?

FOOD

Emotional eating, binge eating, overeating, excessive restriction, and starvation can all be forms of numbing out. Food becomes your ‘thing’ when you want to turn the channel on what’s really going on.

ALCOHOL

This can get mixed up with food, as we can turn to alcohol just like we turn to chocolate cake. Wine becomes a substitute for relaxation or feeling content with ourselves. After a manic day, you reach for something outside of yourself. You may find yourself drinking more and more without even noticing the increasing volume it takes to numb out. This happens so slowly that the trap snaps down without us noticing until it’s too late.

I’m not passing judgment on anyone. This behavior was a significant part of how I coped during my divorce. I reached outside of myself for various reasons until I was ready to confront my issues. There’s nothing inherently wrong with indulging in small amounts of attractively packaged poison, such as wine. However, if that indulgence escalates to consuming a bottle or two on the weekends, or you find yourself slipping into a binge mentality, that serves as a critical red flag to step back and reassess your actions.

SOCIAL MEDIA

How many times have you found yourself mindlessly reaching for your phone and scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? Perhaps you’re facing significant work deadlines and your stress levels are maxed out, so you turn to your phone to mentally escape through social media. I am guilty of this, and I suspect you might be too. I urge you to cultivate awareness of this behavior, as awareness is the first step towards change. If you recognize this pattern, begin to question why you reach for your phone when you are stressed. What is it about scrolling that attracts you in that moment?

I often find myself doing this when I’m procrastinating. Procrastination is essentially a built-in stress reduction mechanism our brains utilize. However, as we discussed earlier, our methods of numbing out typically end up causing more pain than providing relief. When social media becomes a distraction or our primary method of procrastination, it signifies a form of numbing out.

TRASH TV

Similar to social media, if you find yourself sitting on the couch and getting lost in trashy reality television for 30-40 minutes, it might be a way of numbing out through procrastination or distraction from your real issues. This form of escapism can serve as a temporary relief from the stressors and discomforts in your life, offering a momentary escape from reality. However, this brief reprieve often comes at the cost of addressing the underlying problems that necessitate such a distraction in the first place.

Engaging in reality television can create a pseudo-reality where your problems seem less significant compared to the exaggerated drama and conflicts portrayed on the screen. It’s easy to get sucked into these manufactured narratives, using them as a way to avoid confronting your own challenges and emotions.

SHOPPING

Compulsive shopping—wandering into a shop and spending $1000 or coming out with a bag of stuff you don’t need—is also a form of numbing out. This behavior can be a way to distract from the reality of one’s situation. It provides a temporary escape, allowing individuals to avoid confronting their emotions or the difficulties they face. It’s a method of coping that offers immediate gratification, but often leads to long-term consequences, such as financial strain and accumulated clutter. It works well—until it doesn’t, leaving you with more problems than you started with and none of the emotional resolution you truly need.

What to do?

Be aware of this, acknowledge what you are doing, don’t judge or criticize it. Step back and start to question: Why am I doing this? What am I trying to gain from this? What part of my hungry soul am I attempting to feed here? What part of my life am I avoiding?

If you are choosing to numb out of your life at the moment, there is something fundamentally imbalanced. Perhaps there isn’t enough fun, pleasure, adventure, connection, or love. When you can find a way of feeding yourself based on these non-physical hungers in the mental and realm of the soul, all this numbing out will start to disappear on its own.

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