Zoning out happens to everyone at times, but it can also get out of hand.
I don’t mind zoning out when I’m watching Netflix or reading a book, but I always freak out when I’ve been driving for a little bit and can’t remember the last couple of miles.
Half the time, I can’t point out exactly where my mind wandered to, and the other times, I’ve daydreamed this whole alternate version of myself, in a perfect world I’ve made up.
What Happens When You Zone Out
‘Zoning out’ or ‘spacing out’ are terms used to describe dissociation.
Dissociation’s definition: “a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory and sense of identity.”
Experts, like Stephen Porges, have theorized that dissociation, or zoning out, is one step past our fight-or-flight response. When your mind feels overwhelmed, whether you recognize it or not, your body may bypass fight or flight, going directly to the ‘freeze’ reaction.
Why don’t we hear about dissociation very often? Dr. Emma Cernis et al begin their paper on dissociation with a suggestion: “Despite its long history, dissociation remains under-recognised clinically, partly due to difficulties identifying dissociative symptoms.”
Why People Zone Out
In this mode — zoned out, dissociated, or frozen — your body essentially “plays dead,” to varying degrees. It thinks survival depends on shutting down and expending as little energy as possible.
Studies have shown that “every area of the brain has a decrease in activation during dissociation.” When you’re zoning out, it becomes harder to move or speak, your emotions can become numbed, and your body’s resources actually start to conserve themselves to prepare for any shock that might come.
As intense as the physical process sounds, dissociation does not look the same from person to person. It can look like mild zoning out, or a totally frozen state. And everyone’s brain works differently, creating different symptoms and triggers.
A person can tune out in a variety of different situations, like ones that involve “highly focused attention, or repetitive, low stimulation experiences, or even strong and emotionally evocative events.”
For instance, young people may use dissociation as coping mechanism when feeling threatened. However, dissociation is often so low-key, that you wouldn’t even notice you spaced out.
What Does Dissociation Feel Like?
Everyday examples of dissociation can range from zoning out, to daydreaming, to your mind going completely blank, to having an out of body experience.
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.
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.
This is what happens when we’ve been walking for a bit when we suddenly realize we have not noticed a thing we’ve walked past, or when we mindlessly eat our way through all of the food in front of us.
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 Experiences This?
Dissociation can happen to anyone, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. Dissociation feels and looks different to each person, but even on the most extreme end of it, almost half of all adults in the United States “experience at least one depersonalization/derealization episode in their lives.”
Mental Health America lists mild dissociation as extremely common — “like daydreaming or getting ‘lost’ in a book.”
They mention that almost one-third of people say they have felt like they were watching themselves in a movie while zoning out, and 4% actually say they feel that way as much as one third of the time.
These dissociative experiences happen the most during one’s youth and then start to decline after people turn 20.
This makes sense because when you’re young, it’s harder to get out of situations that might make you anxious or stressed, and dissociation is a physiological response to helplessness.
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 are used a lot to anchor you back into reality. Examples of these techniques would be to focus on your tactile and sensory input like:
- Focus on the sensation of holding an ice cube, or
- 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.
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.
There are people out there going through the exact same struggle as you, so why not start developing your support community? Click “Chat Now,” and you’ll get connected to people who get it, instantly.