‘Zoning out’ or ‘spacing out’ are common ways of talking about a formal psychological phenomenon: dissociation.
Dissociation is when you lose touch from your
- train of thought (common)
- memories (less common, usually due to stress or trauma)
- senses (like in depersonalization and dissociative disorders such as DID and OSDD)
Why do people dissociate (aka zone out)?
Zoning out may be connected to stress. Experts like Stephen Porges have theorized that dissociation is one step past our usual fight-or-flight responses. When your mind feels overwhelmed, whether you recognize it or not, your body may bypass fight or flight, going directly to the ‘freeze’ reaction–what we call zoning out or dissociation.
When you’re zoned out, dissociated, or frozen, it’s because your body thinks survival depends on escaping your own thoughts or shutting down.
Everyone’s brain works differently, creating different triggers for dissociation. A person can tune out in a variety of non-traumatic situations, like ones that involve “highly focused attention, or repetitive, low stimulation experiences, or even strong and emotionally evocative events.”
During “emotionally evocative events” young people especially may use dissociation as coping mechanism due to feeling threatened. Dissociation is considered an adaptive (helpful) response to abuse, violence, chaos, and dysfunction, especially in childhood. That’s when most of us pick up our zoning out habits.
What does dissociation feel like?
Everyday examples of dissociation can range from forgetfulness, to daydreaming, to your mind going completely blank, to having an out of body experience.
Studies have shown that “every area of the brain has a decrease in activation during dissociation.” When you’re zoning out, your brain might feel like it goes “offline.” In more extreme cases, it becomes harder to move or speak, and your emotions can become numbed.
When dissociating, you can feel disconnected from your surroundings, get a sense that the world around you doesn’t feel real, or even feel like you’re observing yourself from the outside looking in.
From other people’s perspectives, you might have glazed eyes, or look like you’re staring off into space.
A response to mental or emotional overwhelm
One article describes dissociation like a computer that reaches overload for input and then has to shut down for a bit to reboot itself. While the ‘computer’, your brain, is rebooting, you can feel like you’re in a fog.
One person described a more intense dissociative experience in a swimming pool, where they could no longer feel the water around them. They saw that people were talking around them, but they couldn’t understand what anyone was saying; they were focused on how they didn’t feel wet.
Then, they went on to explain how it felt: “Physically, I feel floaty. My skin tingles and I feel outside myself—like someone observing myself observing what I’m in front of. I don’t feel solid, but as if I’m above or next to what is happening. I’ve been told that my face goes blank and I don’t blink very often, and I sometimes get a distant look in my eye.”
Who feels zoned out? How common is dissociation?
Dissociation can happen to anyone, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. Dissociation feels and looks different to each person, but is generally pretty common.
Mental Health America lists mild dissociation as extremely common: “like daydreaming or getting ‘lost’ in a book.” Dissociation is often so low-key, that you wouldn’t even notice you (or someone else) spaced out.
For those who do notice their dissociation, Mental Health America mentions that almost one-third of people say they have felt like they were watching themselves in a movie while zoning out, and 4% of those people feel this way as much as one third of their lives.
Almost half of all adults in the United States “experience at least one depersonalization/derealization episode in their lives.” And even on the more extreme end of the spectrum, dissociative disorders can still be relatively widespread. Dissociative Identity Disorder is seen at a rate of 1 in 70, and while less noticeable, OSDD occurs in about 8% of the population.
Occasionally daydreaming or spacing out is completely normal, but when the dissociation starts interfering with everyday life, you might want to consider reaching out for help.
What to do when you’re zoning out too much
Sometimes, zoning out is healthy and can give you a chance to chill for a little bit. It gives your mind time to relax and digest info you’ve taken in.
There are things you can try, however, if dissociation starts to disable you.
Grounding techniques can be used to anchor you back into reality. Examples of these techniques involve focusing on your sensory environment. You might:
- Focus on the sensation of holding an ice cube
- Smell peppermint oil
- Do physical activity like going for a run or even just lifting something heavy in your room
- Try structured mental activity like sudoku, crosswords, or counting down from 100 in intervals of 3
- Just take note of the world around you, counting all the green things you can see, which can bring you back down to Earth
For a couple more suggestions, techniques as simple as listening to your favorite song, snapping a hair tie on your wrist, or writing down your to-do list can also help bring you back to reality.
Therapy is a necessary part of healing for dissociative disorders like DID and OSDD. Use this guide to help find a therapist.
There will also always be people at Supportiv who understand what zoning out feels like. Talking to others going through the same things can help you accept what’s going on, so it’s easier to tackle.
Sharing with peers can also give you ideas. Ask how they cope, or how they come back to the here-and-now when zoning out too much.