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Are You Engaging In Emotional Novocaine? A PhD Explains The Sneaky Signs

Hannah Frye
mbg Assistant Beauty Editor By Hannah Frye
mbg Assistant Beauty Editor
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.
Are You Engaging In  Emotional Novocaine? A PhD Explains The Sneaky Signs

As the saying goes, old habits die hard. This is applicable to not just physical habits but mental habits as well. Read: If you've learned to cope with your emotions in a certain way, shifting that pattern isn't always easy. 

On a recent episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, developmental psychologist Sasha Heinz, Ph.D., who is an expert in behavioral change and positive psychology, discussed some of the most common emotional coping methods out there. Here, one method she recommends avoiding, if you can. 

What is emotional novocaine?

Heinz actually coined the intriguing term "emotional novocaine" herself. Its definition? "Anything that you do to stay numb," she explains. "Anything that you do somewhat compulsively to avoid feeling feelings." 

There are plenty of strategies people use to numb their emotions, but Heinz emphasizes that it's quite common (so you're not alone). Some people may even engage in a few different emotional novocaine activities in a single setting. A few examples include: 

  • Mindlessly scrolling on social media
  • Gossiping with friends
  • Drinking alcohol to avoid emotions
  • Shopping as distraction
  • Only focusing on others' problems

"There are different flavors of emotional novocaine, and everyone has different or multiple versions of it," Heinz says. Which emotionally numbing activity you choose may depend on the feeling or feelings you're hoping to avoid or whatever best distracts you the most at the moment. 

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How to know you're engaging in emotional novocaine.

Now, activities like scrolling through Instagram and shopping can also be done intentionally as well. Heinz isn't saying you can never spend time on social media or take advantage of a sale. That said, it can be difficult to know if you're using these behaviors as a numbing technique or if you're actively engaging in them with positive intention. 

If you find yourself reverting to this activity when negative emotions come up, whether it be loneliness, boredom, sadness, etc., then it may be serving as a numbing or distracting technique. According to Heinz, "If you're not doing it for the pure enjoyment of the activity itself but for its distracting powers," that's a telltale sign you're engaging in emotional novocaine. 

What to do about it.

Heinz points out that these distractions aren't always a bad thing. With so much going on in the world around you, sometimes it's comforting to think about, well, nothing at all. However, when you begin to lose control and engage in these activities compulsively, then you may consider dedicating a moment to be mindful of these actions. 

When you catch yourself reverting to whatever activity you tend to use as a numbing or distracting technique, ask yourself, "Am I doing this to avoid feeling something else, or is this what I want to be doing right now for pure enjoyment?"

The answer to this question will help you decide whether or not you want to continue engaging. If you realize you're actively trying to distract yourself, then it may be time to truly let yourself feel the emotion at hand rather than continue avoiding it. Over time, Heinz explains, exposing yourself to these difficult emotions can increase your tolerance for challenging emotional states. This, in turn, will lead to better mental fitness overall. 

The takeaway. 

Truly changing your habits, whether physical or emotional, is no easy task. When it comes to emotional coping mechanisms, the same struggles apply—even more so if you don't even know you're doing them. If you engage in mindless activities to numb yourself from feeling a certain type of way, you may be experiencing emotional novocaine. To break this cycle, try to be mindful of your intention with these activities and, when possible, feel the emotions you were initially trying to avoid. For more information about positive psychology, check out the three most common myths about self-help, straight from Heinz herself.

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