TL;DR: There are a few types: flashbacks, dissociation, and maladaptive daydreaming are covered here. They happen in a number of mental illnesses for a number of reasons.
Content Warning: Mentions of various traumatic events
Thanks for coming back for another symptom. This one was a personal request from someone close to me. So this week we’re going to cover: Zoning Out. I call it this instead of specifying the type, just to be able to cover it more broadly and later on I’ll dive deeper into the “types” of zoning out. I want to be clear that everyone zones out, even people without mental illness. It becomes a symptom of your mental illness when it is interfering with you life (apply this to all symptoms moving forward).
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Dissociative Disorder (unspecified), Dissociative Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, Drug Withdrawal, Psychosis, Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder, Depersonalization Disorder, Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Avoidant Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, etc.*
*This list is incomplete because so many mental illnesses are associated with some form of zoning out.
What Does the Research Tell Us?
I’m going to cover 3 types of “zoning out”: dissociation, maladaptive daydreaming, and flashbacks. I’m going to discuss each one briefly and in later posts will discuss them more in depth.
Dissociation is characterized by feeling detached from your body and as though you are having an out of body experience (this is why it’s sometimes called depersonalization). During a dissociative episode, you might not remember the things that happened while you were “out” (otherwise known as dissociative amnesia). Have you ever been driving after a long and stressful day and when you got home you realized you didn’t remember how you got there? It’s like the last 20-30 minutes of your life didn’t exist and you time traveled from point A to point B? That’s a dissociative episode, one that most people can relate to, particularly after a stressful day at work. It’s like your brain just shut off and you drove home based on muscle memory. In more extreme cases, someone suffering from dissociative amnesia might forget their name, friends, and personal history.
Depersonalization, derealization, and identity confusion are also common with dissociation. In less extreme cases, a person experiencing these things might have that “out of body” feeling and simply be going through the motions of things in a robotic manner. You are disconnecting from the environment and yourself during something that your brain is perceiving as traumatic so that it can better cope with the feelings of helplessness, fear or pain. Those who dissociate during a traumatic event will more likely develop dissociation as one of their coping skills. For instance, rape survivors may dissociate during the event so that they can detach from the situation. Moving forward, anything that triggers the traumatic memory will be met with dissociation.
Maladaptive daydreaming is a relatively new symptom (as far as the research goes). It is not mentioned even in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) that was published in 2013. Daydreaming is usually harmless and people do it regularly. You might be sitting in a long lecture or meeting and zone out to… the beach and hear the waves crashing and feel the sun on your face. However, people with maladaptive daydreaming as a symptom can spend as much as 4 hours per day in a daydream.
Much like dissociation, it occurs most often in people who have been exposed to severe trauma. It is used as a coping mechanism to avoid the harsh feelings that arise with triggers. However, unlike dissociation, instead of your brain simply shutting off, you create vivid stories and can even feel emotions associated with the stories. There is some suggestion that maladaptive daydreaming is associated with obsessive-compulsive symptoms. You might even feel a compulsion to finish your daydream where you left off if you were interrupted.
Similar to both dissociation and maladaptive daydreaming, flashbacks can be trigged by trauma related events, smells, sights, and more. Also similar to maladaptive daydreaming, flashbacks can make you feel the same emotions that you felt during the traumatic event. Media may have you believe that with a flashback you are transported mentally to the event and you see it all around you. Flashbacks are memories that you focus on and thinking about for an extended period of time; you might not even realize you’ve been experiencing flashbacks.
Your body might even have a physical response to your flashbacks. Because the traumatic event that you are experiencing the flashback for triggers the same area in your brain, it will also trigger your fight or flight response. As a result, you might experience sweating, heart racing, and heavy breathing during the flashback. Utilizing the rape survivor example again, during a flashback they may begin to feel a pain similar to their assault or smell the scent of what was around them.
So What Can I Do About It?
First and foremost: I am not a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. The following are skills I’ve used with zoning out and other skills from the internet (maybe a few nuggets sprinkled in from my own therapist). The best way to find how to cope with your own symptoms? Go to therapy.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT is a highly recommended and evidence-based practice used for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (and many other mental illnesses). Most therapists, if not all, are trained in CBT and can help lead you to healthier behaviors and improved emotional regulation. The key is to find healthy coping mechanisms and move away from the unhealthy ones.
Grounding Techniques: Grounding is a way to pull you out of dissociative episodes, maladaptive daydreams, and flashbacks and bring you back to reality. You can use physical and mental techniques. Some people gently pinch themselves or touch items. One of my personal favorites is box breathing (5 second breath in, 5 second hold, 5 second breath out, 5 second hold). I also have an anchoring and tapping pairing that my therapist taught me called emotional freedom technique (though I prefer to do this when I’m alone).
Know Your Triggers: Because zoning out is so closely related to trauma and traumatic events, it’s important to know what things, sights, situations, people, smells, etc., are going to trigger you. If you are aware of your triggers you are more likely to be able to avoid them or mentally prepare yourself so they can be less triggering.
Consider watching this video from a Licensed Counselor about how to handle your flashbacks.
How do you cope with your zoning out? What other symptoms would you like to see in the future?