Dissociation: Zoning Out

Author Note: the following is a post that I had written in Oct 2022 but never published. After stumbling on this YouTube video about self-regulating through future fantasies, I was inspired to revisit this topic and came upon this post.

I often feel like I’m in a fog, that I’m never really here. While it’s normal for most people to zone out from time to time, I’m realizing that I’m doing it almost every minute of every day.

I used to practice “mindfulness” and “meditation” but so much of this time spent was really just me zoning out, disassociating from my actual experience.

What I’m realizing is that I have to actively try and bring my attention into the moment and I’ve been using my breath to do that lately.

While zoning out isn’t always a bad thing, dissociation is considered by professionals to be a coping tactic that we learn in childhood when faced with some sort of traumatic event, like sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. Or growing up in an unstable environment.

But it doesn’t always have to be the result of something terrible. It could be as innocent as a child not getting the attention they needed from a parent who was loving but busy with work. In this case, the child learned to disconnect and “float away” to escape the painful feelings of not getting the parent’s attention.

Dissociation is a survival mechanism

Dissociation is a survival mechanism. From the outside, it may give off the appearance of being “calm” but, in reality, it’s just being numb. The nervous system is maxed out and so things that may be pleasant or stimulating to the nervous system just don’t register. Things that we would normally enjoy, we have no room for.

When carried into adulthood, it keeps you separated from engaging with life fully. You’re never really there, never connected to your feelings and thoughts, so you never assert yourself, advocate for what you want, or confront the facts of the moment.

Dissociation leaves you watching from the sidelines of life.

It doesn’t take much to enter that dissociative state and interestingly enough, opiates are being released in the brain which activates the impulse to just keep staring or “zoning out”. But opiates make you numb to your emotions, hence how dissociating works to mask emotional pain.

Getting back in the zone

Grounding techniques and mindfulness can be hugely powerful as they help to bring your attention back to the here and now but it requires awareness to know when you are disassociating. A somatic therapist could be a useful ally in helping you to realize when you’ve slipped into disassociating.

Equally as powerful is your own internal will to “snap out of it”. When you realize you’re disassociating, you can simply bring your attention intensely back to the present moment.

This can seem really hard to do if you spend a lot of time daydreaming or zoning out. You’ve likely become really accustomed to doing it but with practice, I believe you can start to re-condition yourself to put more attention into the present moment and start to re-connect with what’s really happening now.


Disassociating can be a way to soothe ourselves when the reality of life seems to be too much but when we disconnect from reality, we limit our experience of life and so never actually experience anything at all. We miss out on the moments of our lives that, while challenging at times, make for a richer, more meaningful, and enjoyable life.

By practicing being in the moment and noticing when we are not present, we can start to refocus our minds and train our nervous system to engage with reality rather than avoid it. From this place, we have more agency in our lives, can make more meaningful decisions, and ultimately, live life with more joy.

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