Zoning Out: Why You Do It + How To Stop

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Have you ever been in the middle of doing something and realized that your mind has wandered off into another realm of time and space?

A fair amount of time may have passed, and you might have missed some of the movie you were watching, or you didn’t hear a word that was said to you.

This is known as “zoning out,” and it happens to almost everyone at some point.

For most people, zoning out is a type of coping mechanism. It’s a form of disassociation in which one’s mind compartmentalizes tasks and information processing in order to get something done.

Tasks that don’t require a lot of focus end up going on autopilot, allowing the mind to drift somewhere else. This might be somewhere more pleasant—such as daydreams—or it might fixate on a subject that’s quite pressing to the person.

Think of it rather like a person who splits themself in half while going on a journey. One half takes the high road, the other half takes the low road, and they eventually meet up at the pub down the street. That’s when the two halves snap together and there’s a “WTF?” moment when they realize that they haven’t been privy to what one another has been doing.

The part of your mind that has zoned out will be completely oblivious to what’s gone on around you while you were drifting. People might have been talking to you, or important stuff might have happened during the movie that you were supposed to be watching. Hell, a purple alpaca might have tap danced its way across the room in front of you and you wouldn’t have noticed because that part of your mind was otherwise occupied.

We literally lose time when we zone out, and then we have to regroup and refocus on what’s been happening. This can be frustrating at best, or confusing and worrying at worst.

Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you explore why you zone out and how to stop doing it. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.

What Causes It?

Zoning out can be caused by a number of different things, depending on the individual. The causes listed below are the most common, but they are not all-encompassing.

1. “I don’t want to be here.”

First and foremost is tedium. When you’re trapped in a situation that you don’t want to be in, it’s difficult to fake enthusiasm and pretend that you’re actually interested in what’s going on around you.

For instance, you might absolutely hate your job because it’s boring you to tears, or you have no interest in what you’re being inundated with at school. Having to endure something very boring and lackluster for protracted periods of time can make just about anyone’s mind wander off to explore Narnia for a little while.

We’ve been programmed to force ourselves to pay attention to things we don’t care about since day one, and most of us rebel against this on a soul-deep level. When you were in school as a child, did you ever get in trouble for staring out the window or daydreaming when you should have been paying attention to the geometry or history lesson?

No child on earth is naturally inclined to sit motionless for several hours at a time when they are hardwired at that age to be running around, playing, laughing, and burning off all that youthful energy. Having to sit still and concentrate on things they hate is a form of torture for them. As a result, one of two things will happen: they’ll end up cowed into submission and allow their wild nature to die back, or they’ll disassociate (zone out) in order to deal with the awful situation they’re being forced to endure.

Over time, this torture ends up feeling like a jagged psychic wound. Those who felt trapped and resentful in school will often pursue careers in which they have more freedom—both literal and figurative. They’ll also get uncomfortable and even anxious when they find themselves in a captive situation in which they’re forced to listen to something inordinately dull (like a board meeting) or even worse: the same story or information repeated over and over again (such as an elder relative’s story that they repeat on the daily).

As a result, their mind attempts to save itself by switching into void space. They’ll zone out and daydream or think intently about something they actually care about.

2. Over-reliance on instant entertainment for short attention spans.

Are you familiar with the acronym “TL;DR?” It’s one that’s commonly used online, and is short for “too long; didn’t read.”

Many people today can’t concentrate on any bit of information longer than a Tweet or entertainment longer than a TikTok video. They’re lucky if they can tolerate a YouTube clip longer than a minute or so, but even then they’ll likely wander off in search of snacks.

If you’re overused to scrolling through social media or watching meme clips, then your focus and attention are being relentlessly broken from information packet to information packet. As a result, when and if you’re in a situation where you’re forced to focus for a bit longer, your mind rebels. It wants to feast on the next dopamine-prodding glittery thing, and when it doesn’t receive it, then it promptly goes into sleep mode.

3. Information overload.

Have you ever started a new job and been overwhelmed by all the rules and techniques you had to learn immediately? Or felt like you’d been thrown into the deep end at school when you weren’t able to keep up with the subject matter?

When we’re inundated with too much information at once, our psyches can short out in the same way that a circuit breaker can flip to “off” during an electric surge. It’s literally too much information for our brain to handle at that point in time, so part of it simply wanders off so it doesn’t melt.

Otherwise, we can either end up having a bit of a breakdown or sound like dribbling idiots as we try to gather our thoughts together to work coherently.

4. Exhaustion.

Yet another reason why we might zone out on occasion is simply that we’re exhausted. Sleep deprivation prevents our systems from working correctly, and that includes our mental processes.

Have you ever had difficulty concentrating after a night of poor sleep? How about an extended bout of insomnia?

Parents of newborns are all too familiar with the “baby brain fog” that can occur after countless sleepless nights. They might zone out and completely forget what they’re doing, or do ridiculous things absent-mindedly, such as put the kettle in the refrigerator or give the dog a bowl of cereal instead of handing it to their older kid.

5. Trauma resulting in PTSD disassociation.

Zoning out and disassociating is common in people who have experienced significant trauma. And when we mention trauma here, we mean real difficulty. We’re not talking about feeling sad because someone hurt your feelings. Rather, we mean something like surviving a car wreck that killed other family members, experiencing assault, and so on.

If you have seen something awful or had something terrible happen to you, then it’s very likely that your mind disassociated parts of itself in an attempt to protect you from being damaged. In that moment, your brain realized that if you were fully present during this awful moment, you’d end up unable to function, or you would be hurt beyond repair.

This can also happen if you had to withstand an abusive situation at home, or other difficult circumstances over a long period of time. Every time you had to deal with someone mistreating you, part of your mind drifted elsewhere to protect you mentally and emotionally from severe damage.

These kinds of “fugue states” are common in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

Difficulties occur when you’re no longer in any kind of danger, but your mind keeps disassociating on you at the slightest change in social atmosphere. Basically, it’s so hypervigilant about protecting you that it gets overprotective. Any time something potentially troubling might occur, your brain bundles up part of your psyche and pitches it out the window for its own protection.

Once you’ve recognized that there’s actually no threat, you come back to yourself and try to make sense of what the hell just happened. One minute you were reading peacefully in your chair, and the next you saw that 20 minutes had passed and your partner or kid is calling your name in concern.

We’ll touch upon how to heal from this later on in the “how to stop” section.

6. Other health issues.

There are a number of health concerns that can cause a person to zone out. In addition to the PTSD mentioned above, zoning out can be caused by epilepsy (e.g., “absence seizures”), hormonal imbalances (especially for women going through menopause), depression or anxiety, hypoglycemia, or even a transient ischemic attack (which is basically a mild stroke).

If you find yourself zoning out on a regular basis, or even if it’s just happened once fiercely enough to concern you, then you might want to talk to your healthcare provider. In addition to the various causes we’ve touched upon here, there may be a slew of other reasons why you’re disassociating or losing chunks of time.

Getting to the root cause of why it’s happening can go a long way toward helping you determine how to fix it.

How To Stop Zoning Out

Now that we’ve gone through the various causes for zoning out, we can focus on how to stop it from happening.

It is a good idea to seek professional help from one of the therapists at BetterHelp.com as professional therapy can be highly effective in helping you not to zone out.

1. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In simplest terms, this means that you try to avoid situations that will cause you to zone out in the first place.

First and foremost, try to avoid situations and people that bore you to tears. If you know that you’re going to be an anxious, disassociated mess at a family gathering, try to find a way to get yourself out of going. If you can’t avoid it and you end up stuck in an uncomfortable situation, try to act with grace, but don’t give too much of your time and energy to these people if you can help it.

You’ll know that you’re over-extending yourself and “giving too much” when and if you feel that you’re zoning out. This means that you’re depleting your own mental and physical energy stores by giving that energy to others, rather than keeping it for your own wellbeing.

Similarly, if you find yourself zoning out at the job you hate or the school program you have no interest in, then that’s a solid sign that change is needed. Talk to a career counselor about changing jobs, and consider switching majors to something that truly interests you. Few things will stop a person from zoning out quite like removing themselves from situations they despise.

2. Spend time doing things that bring you joy and fulfillment.

One of the best ways to avoid zoning out is to spend as much time as possible doing what you love. Things that engage and inspire you will keep your focus without any great effort on your part.

Think of the many instances in which you lost track of time because you were having fun: rather than losing hours because you were zoned out, the hours sped by because you were doing something awesome.

What do you enjoy doing? Do you like to play video games? Or do you prefer crafts that you can make with your hands? Are you interested in learning how to play a new instrument? Putting together puzzles? How about gardening, sculpting, or jewelry making?

Play is extraordinary for getting out of a rut and refocused on the present moment. Even something as simple as juggling can keep you utterly in the moment and engaged in something that makes you smile.

Another method I discovered while travelling was a simple mind-body exercise that can be done anywhere.

First, make sure that your breathing is calm and regulated. Then ball your right fist and curl your left toes at the same time. As you release those, switch sides so now you’re balling up your left fist and scrunching your right toes. Continue alternating, trying to make the transition fluid from one side to the other.

This simple alternate tensing works both hemispheres of the brain and keeps your focus in the now.

Again the main way to prevent zoning out is to pick activities that you love—those that keep you engaged and inspired—and do them regularly. Your passions are your friend, and they are immensely healing for a reason!

3. Space information consumption into easily digestible portions.

So many times, I’ve seen friends and partners take up new courses or hobbies and throw themselves into the subject matter with great enthusiasm, only to end up passed out face down in a pile of textbooks.

There is such a thing as taking on too much. If you try to absorb too much information all at once, you’ll just burn yourself out and you won’t take in anything. Furthermore, you’ll be upset with yourself for wasting all that time and not having anything to show for your efforts.

Instead, break things up into smaller portions so you don’t choke on them. If you have a couple of weeks to read a book for a course, then divide the book into 12 parts. Read one part every day for six days, then take a break on the seventh. Repeat the following week, and you’ll discover that your recall will be a lot clearer and you’ll be a lot less stressed than if you tried to cram in that novel in a single night.

4. Bring your attention back to your breath.

If you’ve ever done yoga, then you’re probably already familiar with three-part breathing. This is known as ujjayi breathing in Sanskrit, and it is excellent for helping to slow down your breathing, calm you down, and keep you in the present moment. Ujjayi breathing has been shown to reduce high blood pressure and can even stave off anxiety attacks.

To do this practice, place the palm of one hand on your abdomen just above your navel. Then place the other palm on your chest.

If your jaw is clenched, open it slightly and practice saying “HEE” as you inhale with your mouth open, and “HAA” as you exhale. Once you’re comfortable doing this, close your lips gently and continue with that kind of breathing.

As you breathe in, let the air flow gently into your belly, expanding it so your hand is moved away from your body on the inhale and drawn back toward you on the exhale. At the same time, let the front of your chest float upward against your other palm, then down again as you breathe out.

The entire process will feel very expansive as you draw the air into yourself, and beautifully releasing as you exhale. After a dozen or so breaths, you should feel remarkably calmer and more grounded than you did before.

5. Make eating well and exercising high priorities.

What you put into your body will have a marked effect on how you feel. Remember that at its core, food really is medicine, and every single thing you eat or drink will affect you on a cellular level.

Many of us have made drinking coffee or tea a regular occurrence, sometimes consuming half a dozen caffeinated beverages in a day. But did you know that caffeine can increase anxiety and insomnia? If you’re already hypervigilant and/or having difficulty sleeping, then caffeine is most certainly not your friend.

You may be tempted to rely on a few double espressos to help you through the day, but that’ll just exacerbate the problem. Furthermore, it’ll make you more likely to disassociate by increasing hypersensitivity to stimuli.

If you feel the need for a boost of “something” to help you keep going, aim for freshly squeezed vegetable and fruit juices or small amounts of pure protein. These will fill your body with nutrients to help keep it going, without the inevitable crash.

Next, make workouts and sleep high priorities. Getting regular exercise will help you to be able to relax more at night, which in turn will make it easier for you to get proper rest. Take some time off work to catch up on sleep too if you can.

When body, mind, and spirit are working together harmoniously, there’s less of a need to disassociate from current circumstances.

6. Find techniques that help you stay present.

Different techniques and approaches will work for different people, so it’s a matter of determining what works best for you.

Some people like to wear mala bracelets or carry rosary beads so they can recite prayers or mantras while physically moving those items through their hands. Others like to stim by rubbing their palms together, tapping a foot, or otherwise doing some kind of soothing, grounding physical movement.

Does scent help you stay present? Then carry a small rollerball of your favorite fragrance and apply it to your pulse points as needed.

7. Relearn how to focus for longer periods of time.

One of the best ways to avoid zoning out is to relearn how to focus on something for longer than a few seconds.

Reduce the amount of time you spend looking at screens such as phones and tablets, and redirect your focus onto something more tangible. Your goal is to wean yourself off the need for constant entertainment and dopamine release so you can learn how to appreciate what you’re doing in the moment.

Spend time in silence, preferably by either reading an actual book or spending time in nature. If you’re choosing a book, make sure that it’s subject matter that you’re interested in reading, rather than something you think you should be immersed in.

Alternatively, if you’re more of a nature fiend, find ways to engage with the natural world rather than just meandering through it. For example, take some containers with you and do some foraging. Maybe you could pick some edible berries if they’re in season, or take samples of fungi and lichen to identify later. Take a notebook along to write down the areas where you found these things and learn to identify different plant species and their uses.

Also don’t snack on anything until you’ve positively identified it, as there are a lot of toxic species out there.

Properly observing things that thrive in nature helps to ground and refocus the mind. Of course there will be some level of internal struggle when you first try to focus on something like this. You might get antsy and irritable because you’re used to the jolts-per-second thrill that comes from electronic screens. Novels usually don’t get to the good bits quickly enough, and you might wander out in the woods for hours and not find anything more interesting to you than a concerning insect bite.

Be patient, and keep trying. Before you know it, you’ll discover that you’ve actually been drawn into the story and you want to know what happens when Grognak the Impatient gets that magic crystal back to Lady Starfyreunicorne. Or the weird-looking shelf thing you found growing out of an evergreen tree is actually reishi: the “mushroom of immortality” in traditional Eastern medicine. There’s so much cool stuff to focus on that you really don’t have to disassociate and go elsewhere just to experience some beauty and peace.

8. Practice visualization techniques.

Close your eyes and visualize an image that you find easy to focus on. Some people like to envision the number “1,” while others might prefer a shape like a white triangle or a green circle. Try to focus on it and see it as clearly as you can in your mind’s eye.

Then after you’ve focused on this shape or image for a good 10 seconds or so, switch it up. For example, if you’ve visualized the number “1,” then choose “2” for another 10 seconds, and then shift to “3,” and so on.

Aim to get to 10 or 20 initially without your focus wavering. If your focus ends up being derailed either by zoning out or because you suddenly started thinking about some funny meme a friend recently shared, that’s ok. Take a breath, refocus and recommence the practice. Initially try for two minutes, and then extend that a bit longer each time.

If you choose geometric shapes instead of numbers, you can switch from a green circle to a white triangle, and then to a red square, and so on. There are enough shapes out there to keep your mind occupied for a while!

This can be done in most places, such as when you’re waiting for a bus or a train. Furthermore, it gives you something to do that’s beneficial for your mind rather than staring at whatever dross your phone decides to show you.

Another mind trick to stop yourself from looking at the phone constantly is simply to look around you and take note of what’s tangible. Count the petals of a flower, and look intently at the colors present in its petals. How many are there? Can you see the pistils and stigmas easily? How does it smell?

Take in all the information around you without zoning out, but be gentle with yourself if you do disassociate. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Simply go back to looking at that flower or bird.

Memorizing poetry or bits of verse can help too. When you’re bored, you can silently recite these passages to yourself to ensure that your memory remains clear. Consider keeping a notebook and pen handy so you can write down interesting poems, song lyrics, and quotes as you come across them. Try to do this manually rather than creating a text note on your phone. Remember that we’re trying to reduce screen time here: not add to it.

9. Try active listening.

Are you familiar with active listening techniques? They can be remarkably helpful for keeping you from zoning off when someone else is talking to you.

These involve trying to stay focused on a conversation by doing some of the following:

  • Watching the other person’s lips as they move to help clarify what they’re saying
  • Actively nodding and making affirmative sounds to let them know you’re still paying attention
  • Pausing them to repeat back what they’ve said or ask them questions for the sake of clarification

Doing things like this makes the other person feel like they’re being heard and understood, and it also helps to stop you from drifting off elsewhere. This is easier to do when what they’re saying is actually engaging, but it can be helpful in any type of social scenario in which you may find yourself.

10. Get therapy when and if you feel that you need it.

While many of the techniques mentioned above can help you stop zoning out, they won’t necessarily work for everyone. This is particularly true for those who are dealing with PTSD/C-PTSD as mentioned. Everyone’s experience is different, and what works well for one person might do absolutely nothing for another.

In cases such as those, a trained therapist who specializes in trauma recovery may very well have a wellspring of techniques that can help you learn to stay present and focused. They might even be able to work in tandem with your healthcare provider to ensure that your body is as healthy as possible while you work on strengthening and retraining your mind.

BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.

While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.

Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.

Here’s that link again if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.

You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. The worst thing you can do right now is nothing. The best thing is to speak to a therapist. The next best thing is to implement everything you’ve learned in this article by yourself. The choice is yours.

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