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Zoning Out vs Dissociation: What’s The Difference?

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone, making eye contact with them, maybe even nodding – but you haven’t heard a word they’ve said? Or have you caught yourself staring out the window during a meeting and thinking about something totally different? While some may call this dissociating, this kind of ‘zoning out’ is entirely different. 

While zoning out is a temporary lapse of concentration that disconnects you from reality briefly, dissociation is a more severe reaction to stress and trauma that can be harmful. Dissociation is a separation from your body and the inability to react emotionally, which you cannot ‘snap out of.’

Is either of these phenomena something to worry about? How do you know if you’re just zoning out or experiencing dissociation? And when should you get help?

Zoning Out vs Dissociation: What’s The Difference?

You may have heard people use the words ‘dissociation’ and ‘zoning out’ interchangeably, and while they do share certain similarities and may even have similar traits, the two differ in significant ways.

As a simple summary, zoning out is temporary and generally harmless, while dissociation can be prolonged, intense, and disruptive. The latter can also be a symptom of severe mental health disorders. 

A woman stares blankly into the camera. Is it zoning out or dissociating?
zoning out vs dissociation

What Is Zoning Out? 

Zoning out or ‘spacing out’ is a short period where you feel disconnected from what’s happening around you. When you zone out, you may temporarily be unaware of where you are or what you were doing. The key words here are temporarily unaware. When you zone out, you’re not in the moment, and your mind is elsewhere.

This may sound familiar, and that’s because it’s pretty common. 

Many call it daydreaming or just staring ahead of you while your thoughts are a million miles away. In real life, zoning out can look like staring out of a window and thinking of other things while you’re in class or not paying attention to someone who is actively talking to you. 

Some suggest that zoning out allows you to be on ‘autopilot,’ nodding away when someone is talking while you’re not hearing a word they’re saying. 

Zoning out can also look like distraction, an inability to concentrate, or your mind wandering from the topic at hand. Sometimes, you may even be doing something while zoning out, like making a cup of tea, watching a film, or reading.   

While zoning out is considered a type of dissociation, it’s a very mild form and is generally not harmful or too disruptive to your life – you may get rapped over the knuckles for not paying attention by a teacher, but sporadic zoning out is typically not something to be concerned about. 

Why do People Zone Out?

We’ve touched on the term ‘autopilot’ concerning zoning out, and it’s a good analogy for what happens in the brain. Scientists call it mind wandering and suggest it’s a normal part of our brain function.

In studies conducted on mind wandering, researchers discovered a specialized system in the brain that seems to manage zoning out. This default mode network is inactive when we are focused and fires up when our thoughts wander from our current circumstances. When this network is active, the other parts of the brain seem to be quiet. 

This research also found that, while there was no communication between the default mode network and sensory input systems, it did draw from areas where memory is stored. This explains why you can zone out while holding a cup of tea and not be aware that it’s hot, but your thoughts are sifting through memories or thinking about a future event. 

So, what causes you to zone out?

1. Lack of Sleep

A colleague once said that they felt like they had too many ‘browser tabs’ open in their mind at the same time, and the result was their ‘operating system’ hanging. This is a good analogy for what happens when you are fatigued and not getting enough sleep.

Your brain, as your operating system, is disadvantaged by the effects of fatigue: you may be cranky, feel slow, struggle to concentrate, and have brain fog. Zoning out is much more likely when you’re sleep-deprived.

2. Being Overwhelmed or Being Bored

Much like the above analogy, sometimes, when there is too much on our plate, we zone out in a way that breaks away from all the intense thoughts we have to sift through.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by tasks to do, thoughts to process, and plans to make, you may find yourself spacing out momentarily as you try to catch a breather. Similarly, boredom can lead to daydreaming as a way of stimulating creativity. 

3. Medical Issues, Brain Injury, or ADHD

It’s important to note that very low blood pressure, low blood sugar, migraine headaches, strokes, seizures, and even drug-related states can prompt zoning out, but those who have experienced these because of a health-related issue will note it doesn’t feel quite the same. These tend to be longer and only occur under specific circumstances.  

Brain illnesses (such as tumors) and trauma to the brain can also lead to periods of zoning out, and those with ADHD may report higher frequencies of zoning out episodes, too. These are all issues that should be addressed by a medical professional immediately. 

4. Stress, Grief, or Trauma

Zoning out because of stress or trauma is also reasonably common, and you may have seen someone who is dealing with the loss of a loved one just staring into space. In these cases, it may be your brain’s attempt at coping or just giving you a slight reprieve from the grief.

It’s essential to understand that while zoning out because of grief, stress, or trauma is not uncommon, it can be a warning sign if it occurs frequently and is disruptive. 

What Is Dissociation?

Dissociation is a much more intense form of zoning out. It may leave you feeling like you are out of your body, watching yourself from a distance, as though you are not in control of your body. In extreme cases, people have reported taking on a different identity and being aware that they are not ‘within themselves.’ 

Depersonalization is an element of dissociation that sets it apart from simply zoning out. Depersonalization refers to being detached not just from your surroundings but also from yourself, your identity, and your emotions. This doesn’t happen when you’re just zoning out. 

For more on dissociation, I highly recommend this video by Kati Morton:

Like with zoning out, there are various reasons why someone may dissociate, but in most cases, dissociation affects those who have experienced extreme trauma. Various films and TV series have touched on dissociation as a symptom of PTSD and may even connect it with what used to be known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). 

This disorder occurs due to prolonged stress and extreme trauma. It’s most common in those exposed to severe abuse and is tellingly called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) these days. 

This kind of dissociation is characterized by an individual completely separating themselves from what’s happening in the moment, losing touch with their reality, and being ‘out of body.’

It’s easy to see the difference between milder zoning out and the severity of dissociation. The two differ in intensity, but it’s also easy to snap out of zoning out episodes and still be aware of what happened during that time. Dissociation often includes an inability to react emotionally, being out of control, having gaps in memory, and not being able to snap yourself out of the episode. 

Dissociation can be either mild or severe. Research shows us that during dissociation, every area of the brain shows decreases in activity, but a chemical reaction also occurs. Our bodies release opioids and cannabinoids that numb our ability to feel physical and emotional pain. It also induces a sense of calm detachment, which “helps” you to get through the trauma at hand. 

Mild Dissociation

More like zoning out, mild dissociation occurs when you lose your sense of person, time, or place temporarily – for example, experiencing a forced flashback of something traumatic that happened to you and being unable to stop it. Dissociative amnesia can also be classified as a mild type, and it refers to your inability to remember something traumatic that happened to you. 

Unlike zoning out, where you can snap out of it at will, with even mild dissociation, you cannot control how long the episode lasts, and you may lose touch with your senses. You may not be aware of your surroundings, what you’re hearing, smelling, seeing, or feeling. 

Severe Dissociation

On the other end of the spectrum, severe dissociation occurs when an individual is emotionally and psychologically removed from themselves for some time. It often occurs during particularly traumatic events or as a result of a trigger after the trauma. It’s common in those with profound Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

It’s been hypothesized that severe dissociation occurs as a developmental disorder in children who are exposed to profound trauma and are stuck in the ‘flight’ part of the fight-or-flight response to a threat: since they cannot physically flee from the danger, they run away emotionally and psychologically to cope. 

This can often look like an ‘out of body experience’ in real life. While the person’s body is in the moment and may even be going through the motions, their consciousness seems to be removed entirely. Many report looking down on themselves from outside or above, unable to feel what their body feels or react to what is happening to them. 

What Does Dissociation Feel Like?

Milder dissociation can feel like intrusive flashbacks or daydreams that you cannot stop or a feeling of being elsewhere in your thoughts. Lapses in concentration or not paying attention are good examples, too. 

Severe dissociation feels markedly different. 

It may feel as though you are floating above your body or looking at yourself as though you were a character in a movie (some have said they feel like they are looking at characters in a video game). While watching yourself, you can’t control anything your body does, and you cannot feel anything happening to your body.

During severe dissociation, people often feel disconnected from who they are – they feel like they have no identity or they have a different identity entirely. Feelings of being numb emotionally are also common. 

Finally, dissociation has left some feeling like the world around them, and the people in it aren’t real.

A young man sits on the couch in a state of dissociation
what does dissociation feel like?

How To Determine If You Are Zoning Out Or Dissociating

If you are concerned that you or someone you love is experiencing dissociation, here are some ways that will help you to identify if it’s milder zoning out or something to be worried about. If you experience the following, you may be dissociating:

  • Are you losing time or feeling like chunks of your day are missing and unaccounted for? 
  • Are you having gaps in your memory, or are there things you can’t remember that you should be able to recall?
  • Do you feel like you are sometimes outside of yourself, looking at your body, going through the motions, and not being able to return?
  • Does the world around you feel like it’s not real, and are you feeling little to no attachment to it and the people in it?
  • Are your emotions numbed in such a way that you feel you don’t ‘feel anything’?
  • Do such ‘lost time’ episodes occur frequently, and are they predictable? For example, do you go “out of your body” when you’re faced with extreme stress or past traumatic event are triggered?

Signs You Are Dissociating

Taking it a step further, here are some signs and symptoms that you may be dissociating: 

  • You find yourself at times outside of your physical body, and you can’t seem to snap out of it.
  • You experience memory loss, gaps in memory, or have times that you can’t remember
  • You feel completely detached from what’s happening around
  • You cannot process or react with appropriate emotions
  • You aren’t aware of the fact that you have “zoned out” 
  • Others tell you that you have an entirely different identity during these times of dissociation
  • You cannot recall your words and actions during the time of dissociation.

When To Seek Help

If you’re worried about simple zoning-out episodes, you can rest assured that they are pretty common.

But if you find these episodes are repeatedly occurring, you’re unable to recall events that happened while zoning out, you lose bodily functions or get injured, then it’s time to seek help. And, if someone you are with can’t snap out of a zoning-out episode, you should treat it as a medical emergency.

Similarly, if you are experiencing dissociative episodes that interfere with relationships and daily activities, it’s severe enough to seek help.

Memory loss, suicidal thoughts, thoughts of self-harm, and extended periods of emotional numbness are all signs that you should approach a mental health professional. 

Very often, you will experience other symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, when you are not in a dissociative state. A professional can help you with a treatment plan, which can incorporate specific medications to ease anxiety and depression symptoms, intrusive thoughts, and mood swings. 

Combined with therapeutic interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), treatment can help you to live a much healthier, happier life. 

Final Thoughts: Zoning Out vs Disassociation

Although zoning out is a very mild type of dissociation, it is a far cry from the disruptive nature of severe dissociation. Zoning out here and there is fairly typical for most people, but if you’re unable to snap out of it and it affects your ability to function – or it makes you feel negative about your life – it’s necessary to find someone to talk to.

Resources:

  • https://www.healthline.com/health/zoning-out
  • https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-spacing-out-3145946#:~:text=Zoning%20out%20is%20considered%20a,of%20zoning%20or%20spacing%20out.
  • https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/262888
  • https://psychcentral.com/blog/organizations/2014/11/the-line-between-spacing-out-and-dissociation-is-only-degree-and-distance#2
  • https://www.stresstherapist.net/real-life-difficulties/dissociation-vs-zoning-out-whats-the-difference
  • https://www.insider.com/signs-of-dissociation-psychologist-explains-dissociative-identity-disorders-2022-5
  • https://keirbradycounseling.com/dissociation/
  • https://www.wellandgood.com/what-does-dissociation-feel-like/
  • https://www.supportiv.com/depression/zoning-out
  • https://mcgovern.mit.edu/2021/03/25/whats-happening-in-your-brain-when-youre-spacing-out/
  • https://www.flexispot.com/spine-care-center/is-zoning-out-a-bad-habit-or-a-helpful-brain-function

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