Zoning out is a mild and common form of dissociation. It can serve as a coping mechanism when you’re bored, stressed, or dealing with a difficulty in your life.
Ever spaced out over a long, difficult book and realized you haven’t read a single word in 10 minutes? Or started thinking about lunch when an overenthusiastic co-worker goes on a little too long in a meeting?
Nearly everyone zones out from time to time. It might happen more frequently when you feel bored or stressed, or when you’d rather be doing something else.
It’s also pretty common to experience prolonged spaciness or brain fog if you’re dealing with grief, a painful breakup, or other difficult life circumstances. In these cases, zoning out can serve as a coping tactic of sorts, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Zoning out is considered a form of dissociation, but it typically falls at the mild end of the spectrum.
Often, zoning out just means your brain has switched over to autopilot. This can happen when your brain recognizes that you can complete your current task, whether that’s folding laundry or walking to work, without really thinking about it. So you go into default mode.
Still, the following factors can make you more prone to zoning out, even when the task really does require your full attention.
Think back to the last time you didn’t get enough sleep. During the day, you might have felt foggy, easily distracted, or just vaguely “off.”
It might not seem like a huge deal, but sleep deprivation can take a big toll on your mental functioning and make you more prone to zoning out. This can be particularly dangerous when you’re driving or working with machinery.
If you’ve ever had to handle a lot of new, important information at once — say, when starting a new job — you might have felt a little dazed and unsure of where to begin. Maybe your mind immediately began to wander when you tried to concentrate on absorbing the information.
This is where zoning out can actually come in handy. You may feel spaced out, but your brain can continue processing in the background.
A similar process might also happen during high-focus activities, like a precise dance routine. Your feet know the steps, but if you think about what you’re doing too hard, you might make a mistake. So, your brain kicks into autopilot, and before you know it, you’ve completed the routine perfectly.
Overwhelm, stress, and trauma
In addition to information overload, general life overload can also leave you feeling off your game.
You might feel like you’re just going through the motions of daily life, but not really thinking about what you’re doing. Eventually, you emerge from this fog with little recollection of how much time has actually passed or how you got through it.
This is often a coping tactic that helps you keep stress and overwhelm at a distance until you feel equipped to deal with them. If you’ve gone through any kind of trauma, this tendency to zone out might border on more severe dissociation.
In the face of extreme stress, some people respond by shutting down, or completely detaching. Shutdown dissociation can
In other words, you may
- understanding of who you are
- the ability to manage your emotions
- control over bodily movements
Dissociation can also involve memory loss or gaps, so you may not even remember what happened.
For the most part, zoning out isn’t bad at all. It’s a normal part of brain function, and it’s also often helpful.
Letting your mind wander can boost your creativity and help you solve problems more effectively.
Plus, when you’re really involved in doing something you enjoy, whether that’s drawing, working out, playing video games, or reading your favorite book, you might feel totally absorbed and not notice what’s happening around you. As a result, you get more enjoyment out of the activity.
What’s more, a 2017 study exploring the ways that people think about personal values found evidence to support a link between zoning out and deep thinking.
In the study, 78 participants read 40 short narratives about protected values, or values often considered important or sacred. Reading the narratives activated the default mode network, the same area in the brain that’s activated when you zone out.
Zoning out does sometimes have less desirable effects.
If you zone out to cope with something difficult, like an argument with your partner or a lecture from your boss, you might feel less distress in the moment. Zoning out can prevent you from challenging these feelings as they come up.
Then, there’s the whole issue of safety, especially when you’re in unfamiliar surroundings. Maybe you zone out while driving on the freeway because you’ve driven the same route every day for the past 7 years. Still, even though you know the road well, losing focus while driving can easily lead to an accident.
Dissociation can have a protective function when people, especially children, can’t escape from a traumatic or distressing experience. However, it may not be the best response to a situation you can get away from.
If you continue to dissociate in response to all types of stress, you may not use other, more helpful coping methods.
Daydreaming while doing chores or work tasks that require little brainpower is probably just fine. But zoning out while your boss is going over important tips for your next big project? Not so great.
If you tend to zone out during inopportune times, these strategies can help you keep your focus when you need it.
Grounding techniques can be incredibly helpful when you want to stop zoning out. Grounding simply means you take steps to anchor yourself in the present moment.
You might do this by:
- breathing in a strong fragrance, like an essential oil
- stretching or jumping in place
- running cold or warm water over your hands
- sucking on a hard candy with an intense flavor (cinnamon, peppermint, or even sour candies are great options)
Keep track of when you zone out the most
It’s often helpful to jot down a quick note whenever you realize you’ve zoned out. If you don’t always know when it happens, you can ask someone you trust to help.
Logging these episodes can give insight into any patterns of mind wandering and help you take note of your thoughts before zoning out. Once you have more awareness of these patterns, you can take steps to change them.
Mindfulness practices can help you increase your awareness of what’s happening in each moment. This can help a lot if you tend to zone out while doing tasks that don’t require a lot of mental energy. Instead of letting your thoughts wander away, focus on what you’re doing.
If you’re washing dishes, for example, stay present by thinking about the fragrance of the dish soap, the roughness of the sponge, the temperature of the water, and the satisfaction you feel when you get a really dirty pot sparkling clean.
Breathing exercises can also help. Focusing on each breath you inhale and exhale can help you focus your awareness more easily. This can sometimes help you stay present while driving — especially if you’re stuck in traffic, since breathing exercises also help relieve stress.
Use active listening techniques
If you catch yourself zoning out when listening to other people talk, try to incorporate active listening skills when you interact with others.
- nodding and using other nonverbal cues to show your engagement
- summarizing or restating what they say to show your understanding
- asking clarifying questions if you feel confused or uncertain
Good self-care techniques can help you manage stress and overwhelm more easily, which can make zoning out less likely.
Self-care can include basic health and wellness practices, like:
It can also include things like:
- spending time with loved ones
- making time for hobbies and other activities you enjoy
- connecting and communicating with romantic partners about challenges or things affecting you both
It’s important to take care of yourself at work, too, especially if you have a demanding or stressful job. Short, frequent breaks to stretch, rest, and have an energizing snack can increase your productivity and concentration.
Generally speaking, you don’t need to worry about zoning out occasionally, especially if it happens mostly when you’re engrossed in a task and it doesn’t seem to have any negative effects on your daily life.
It’s important to talk to a healthcare professional if your zoning out is accompanied by other systems, including:
- difficulty concentrating or managing time
- restlessness or irritability
- trouble regulating your mood or emotions
- persistent low mood
- thoughts of suicide or self-harm
Since dissociation can be serious, it’s always wise to talk to a therapist if you zone out regularly or believe you’re experiencing dissociative episodes.
Some signs of dissociation include:
- zoning out during stressful situations
- complete detachment from what’s happening
- not realizing when you zone out
- past traumatic events, especially ones you haven’t yet addressed
Therapists offer judgment-free guidance and support as they help you explore possible causes of zoning out and develop helpful coping techniques.
Children experiencing a mild type of seizure known as absence seizures may also appear to zone out. If your child appears to be daydreaming but doesn’t respond when you try to get their attention, it’s a good idea to see their pediatrician.
Getting in the zone while enjoying a good run and realizing you’ve lost track of the last few minutes probably isn’t something you need to worry about.
On the other hand, if you tend to zone out all the time and don’t seem to be able to stop it, it may be time to talk to a therapist. Therapy can always have benefit when zoning out or dissociation affects your day-to-day life.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.