Does Zoning Out Affect the Brain?
What is zoning out?
Zoning out is a form of dissociation. Dissociation is a mental process characterized by a disconnection between memories, thoughts, identity, actions, and memories.
Have you ever opened a page of your book, and then realized that you haven’t read a single line in over ten minutes?
You see, it is normal for humans to zone out from time to time. Sometimes, it happens more frequently. At other times, it happens when one is stressed or bored.
Zoning out is pretty common in people who are grieving, going through a painful breakup, or facing tough times. In such cases, it serves as a coping strategy, which is not bad in itself.
What causes zoning out?
When you zone out, it means that your brain has switched to an autopilot mode. Your brain switches to autopilot when it senses that what you are doing at hand doesn’t require much concentration – a task that you can complete without committing many mental resources. And so, your cognition switches into default mode.
Other factors that can trigger zoning out condition include:
Taking in excess information
Have you ever been in a position where you had to take in a lot of information at a time – let’s assume when you’re starting a new job? You might feel a bit confused – unsure of where or how to begin. And then your mind begins to wander when you tried to focus on retaining the information.
And that’s where zoning out can increase your productivity. You’ll have this feeling of being ‘spaced out’ but your brain can continue working in the background.
Something similar might happen when you are engaged in activities that require a great deal of focus. You understand how to do what you want to do, but if you give too many thoughts to what you’re about doing, you might commit some blunders. And so, your good old brain switches into autopilot mode, and before long, you’ve completed what you wanted to do.
Consider the last time you had a good sleep. You might have had a foggy feeling during the day, got distracted without much effort, or just felt blank.
It may not seem like something much, but depriving yourself of sleep can have a huge negative impact on your mental health and increase your chances of zoning out. And this is very dangerous for people working with heavy machinery or driving.
Trauma and stress
The truth is, the many challenges of life can throw a person off balance.
You might feel like you are just tackling life’s daily issues, but not giving much thought to what you are doing. At the end of it all, you emerge with very little recollection of how you overcame it.
Of course, it is a coping strategy. It helps you to manage stress or that overwhelming feeling until you can deal with them. If you’ve experienced a trauma of some sort, then the tendency to zone out may border on an extreme case of dissociation.
Sometimes, extremely stressed people may respond by completely detaching or shutting down. A shutdown dissociation has negative impacts on the function of the central nervous system. It triggers a completely total absence of presence.
What does this mean?
Well, you may forget temporarily:
- Your identity
- Your ability to control your bodily movements
- How to manage your emotions
Dissociation also causes dementia to some extent, so you may be unable to recall what happened.
Is zoning out a bad thing?
Most of the time, it isn’t. It is a part of the brain physiology and is helpful for the most part.
The advantage of zoning out
Allowing your mind the space to wander can enhance your creativity, thus allowing you to solve problems in a better way.
Also, when you are involved in something that you are passionate about, you will be completely absorbed and might not notice what’s going on around you. And you’ll have more fun doing what you are doing.
A 2017 study examined people’s thoughts and feelings about personal values. Results from the study showed that there was indeed an association between zoning out and deep thinking.
78 subjects were involved in the study. The subjects read 40 brief narratives about sacred or important values. Reading these narratives turned on their default mode network. The default mode network is the same part of the brain that is activated when a person zones out.
The demerit of zoning out
Sometimes, zoning out may have some disadvantages.
It can help you to cope with a difficult situation, like a misunderstanding with your parent or partner. In this case, you won’t feel so stressed. By zoning out, you’ll be less conscious of the challenges that these situations may bring.
Then the issue of safety comes into play, especially if you are not familiar with the environment. Imagine zoning out while cruising on a speed lane; you are less-concerned because you’ve been driving the same lane for over five years. But that notwithstanding, even though you are familiar with the route, losing focus while on the wheel can cause an automobile crash.
Dissociation may be protective when one is facing a distressing or traumatic experience. But that’s not always the best way to respond to such situations.
Rather than dissociate every time, you can employ other helpful coping strategies.
How to stop zoning out
There’s no big deal about daydreaming while doing the laundry or performing other less mentally demanding tasks. However, zoning out during classes or while your CEO is issuing instructions at the office isn’t worth it, is it?
Apply the following tips if you find yourself consistently zoning out at the wrong time.
Mindfulness increases your awareness of present happenings. You’ll find this helpful while doing stuff that is not mentally demanding. Simply focus on the task at hand.
Let’s assume that you’re doing your laundry – it would help to consider the fineness of the lather, the temperature of the water, and how happy you’ll feel when you see your clothes sparkling clean.
You can also practice some breathing exercises. Focus on your breaths. It can help you to maintain focus while driving, and also relieves you of stress.
Caring for yourself can ease the management of stress, which of course, reduces the likeliness of zoning out.
Basic self-care practices include:
- Eating healthy meals
- Sleeping well
- Getting adequate exercise
You may also:
- Increase the time you spend with your loved ones
- Create time for your hobbies or other fun activities
- Make out time to communicate with your loved ones about things bothering you both.
You may also take care of yourself at work, especially if you are engaged in a stressful job – one that takes most of your time. Take breaks, have some snacks, and watch a clip or two – they can boost your concentration and of course, your productivity.
Here’s the thing…there’s really no need to worry if you zone out occasionally, especially if it happens when you are engrossed in your work. In this case, it may have no impact on your activities of daily living.
You must consult your healthcare provider if you experience zoning out alongside other issues like:
- Irritability or restlessness
- Difficulty managing time or concentrating
- Having a low mood all the time
- Suicidal thoughts
Tonika Bruce, MSN, RN, MBA. is an accomplished nurse leader, published author, and personal development expert passionate about advancing healthcare management and quality patient outcomes.
She taps into the years of experience in healthcare management to produce credible and easy-to-understand health and leadership content. Her exceptional work has been featured in reputable publications, including Forbes, Recruiter, Inc, and the Color of Wellness magazine.