Emotional detachment refers to being disconnected or disengaged from the feelings of other people.
This can involve an inability or an unwillingness to get involved in the emotional lives of other people. While this detachment may protect people from stress, hurt, and anxiety, it can also interfere with a person's psychological, social, and emotional well-being.
Emotional detachment can sometimes occur as a coping mechanism when people are faced with stressful or difficult situations. In other cases, it can be a symptom of a mental health condition.
What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Unavailable?
There are a number of signs and symptoms of emotional detachment. These may include:
- Ambivalence toward others
- Avoiding people, situations, or activities
- Difficulty empathizing with others
- Difficulty opening up to other people
- Feeling disconnected from other people
- Losing interest in people and activities
- Losing touch with people
- Not paying attention to other people
- Poor listening skills
- Preferring to be alone
- Problems forming and maintaining relationships
- Problems expressing emotions
- Struggling to feel positive emotions
It is important to remember that emotional detachment is not a mental health condition, but it might be a symptom of some mental disorders.
Identifying Emotional Detachment
If you think you might be experiencing symptoms of emotional detachment, you should talk to a doctor or mental health professional. Such symptoms can be a response to an acute but temporary situation, or it may be a sign of a mental health condition.
Your doctor can assess your symptoms, look at your health history, and evaluate your physical health to help rule out any medical conditions that might be contributing to the symptoms you are experiencing.
Your doctor or therapist will ask you questions about your health history including your feelings, moods, and behaviors. They will ask whether you have experienced recent changes in these areas and will want to know more about the impact these symptoms are having on your life and how long they have lasted.
Emotional detachment can have many different causes. These can include past experiences and psychological conditions, but it can also be purposeful behavior that can be used as a way to cope or set boundaries in overwhelming situations. Some common causes of emotional detachment are listed below.
Past abuse, neglect, and trauma can contribute to emotional detachment. Children who grow up in abusive situations may use this detachment as a way to cope.
In other cases, kids may develop attachment problems as a result of their abuse that contributes to problems with becoming emotionally attached and involved in the lives of other people.
Mental Health Conditions
Emotional detachment can also be a symptom of a number of psychological conditions. These can include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Personality disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Emotional detachment can also be a side effect related to certain medications including antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). You should talk to your doctor if you begin to experience emotional detachment while taking your antidepressant. Your doctor may need to adjust your dosage or consider switching you to a different medication.
Emotional detachment can also be a problem associated with a substance use disorder. If you have symptoms of a substance problem and are experiencing emotional detachment, discuss your treatment options with your doctor.
In other cases, people detach emotionally as a way to cope with stress, establish boundaries, and reduce feelings of anxiety. This can sometimes be a positive coping mechanism in cases where you are facing a temporary problem, but it can become problematic if it becomes an overused pattern of behavior that affects your ability to form healthy relationships with other people.
In some instances, emotionally detaching can help protect people from the effects of traumatic experiences.
Emotional detachment may also be a symptom of an attachment disorder. These may include:
- Reactive attachment disorder: This condition may emerge due to childhood abuse and neglect. As a result, children are unable to form healthy emotional bonds with their caregivers. Symptoms can include problems controlling and expressing emotions.
- Disinhibited social engagement disorder: This condition may occur when kids fail to form meaningful attachments with caregivers. Symptoms include being overly friendly and affectionate with strangers and showing little to no preference for their primary caregivers.
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The treatment approach used to address emotional detachment depends on what exactly is causing it. Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and may make a diagnosis that can then help determine your treatment plan.
If your symptoms are related to a mental health condition such as depression, PTSD, or a personality disorder, your doctor will likely recommend treating the condition to help relieve your symptoms.
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Treatments that your doctor may recommend include psychotherapy and medications. Psychotherapy approaches that might be utilized to treat emotional detachment include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT):
- CBT addresses negative beliefs and maladaptive behaviors that contribute to emotional detachment. It helps people learn new coping mechanisms that will allow them to develop stronger emotional skills without relying on detachment as a way to cope.
- ACT incorporates aspects of mindfulness to help people become more aware of and in control of their emotions.
If you are experiencing emotional detachment that is causing problems in your life and relationships, there are things that you can do to help reintegrate your emotional connections in your life. These include:
- Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness is a technique that helps people focus on the present moment, including the physical environment and emotional responses. Learning how to engage in mindfulness can help you learn to pay attention to your emotions and build self-awareness.
- Strengthening your relationships: As you begin to build greater awareness of your own emotions, it is important to find ways to connect with safe people who will support your growth. This is particularly true if your emotional detachment is a response to adversarial relationships in your life.
- Finding ways to be emotionally vulnerable: Learning how to open yourself up emotionally takes time. Surrounding yourself with safe people who understand your needs are willing to give yourself the time you need can help you gradually work toward improving your emotional experiences and expressions.
A Word From Verywell
Emotional detachment can occur for a number of different reasons. When used voluntarily, it can help protect people from potentially traumatizing experiences. However, it may also occur due to the effects of trauma or as a symptoms of a mental health condition.
If emotional detachment is negatively affecting your life and ability to function, talk to your doctor or therapist. Treatments are available that can help you reconnect with your emotions and re-engage with important areas of your life.
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
Dvir Y, Ford JD, Hill M, Frazier JA. Childhood maltreatment, emotional dysregulation, and psychiatric comorbidities.Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2014;22(3):149-161. doi:10.1097/HRP.0000000000000014
Weilenmann S, Schnyder U, Parkinson B, Corda C, von Känel R, Pfaltz MC. Emotion transfer, emotion regulation, and empathy-related processes in physician-patient interactions and their association with physician well-being: a theoretical model. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:389. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00389
Cleveland Clinic. Reactive attachment disorder.
Minnis H. What happens to disinhibited social engagement disorder over time? J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2018;57(5):304-305. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2018.03.001
Bisson JI, Cosgrove S, Lewis C, Roberts NP. Post-traumatic stress disorder. BMJ. 2015:h6161. doi:10.1136/bmj.h6161
By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.
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