Dissociation and ‘Zoning Out’, A Power or a Pitfall?

Posted May 21, 2024 by Cristina Vrech

Cristina Vrech - Individual and couples therapist

Cristina Vrech

Founder and Director - Individual & Couple Therapist, Corporate Services

Co-founder and director of Leone Centre, Cristina Vrech, has 20+ years of experience in working and supporting people, 14+ years of extensive experience as a therapist and offers valuable knowledge to individuals and couples. Prior to being a therapist, she worked in the financial sector.

Cristina takes a down-to-earth and direct approach across the landscapes of relationships, communication, stress, infidelity, confidence, loneliness, addiction, separation and divorce, IVF, and anxiety.

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Dissociation, often colloquially referred to as ‘zoning out,’ is a defensive response that temporarily disconnects us from reality, often during moments or periods of stress. Similar to how planes switch to autopilot during a turbulent flight, disassociation is like releasing control to navigate safely through a storm.

There are also different types of dissociation. Typical or ‘normal’ dissociation, also known as ‘zoning out’ from boredom or daydreaming, is something that everyone experiences. However, in the context of mental health, it represents a more profound disconnection. It arises from overwhelming emotions and disrupts fundamental aspects of personal functioning, such as consciousness and self-awareness. Recognising this distinction is essential for understanding and addressing dissociative experiences.


Flight, Flight, Freeze – Why do we disassociate?

Often categorised as the body’s ‘freeze’ response in the fight-flight-freeze model of stress, serves as a defensive tactic for children experiencing stressful or dangerous environments. Triggered by the brain’s primal instinct to protect itself, dissociation allows vulnerable individuals to temporarily disconnect from overwhelming stimuli, shielding them against intense emotions. However, while initially an act of protection, dissociation can evolve into a maladaptive behaviour, particularly when triggered by trauma. Notably, dissociation frequently emerges in childhood as a response to feeling threatened, with trauma being a primary trigger. Traumatic events, such as abuse or accidents, often instigate dissociative experiences as a means of self-preservation.

Additionally, individuals with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may be more susceptible to dissociative episodes, using dissociation as a temporary escape from the monotony or overwhelm of daily life.

The connection between Trauma and Disassociation

The connection between trauma and dissociation is profound and complex. occurring when a person disconnects from their thoughts, feelings, memories, or sense of identity, which can be a direct response to trauma. This mental separation helps the individual to endure the traumatic event by detaching from the intense emotional pain and distress. While this can provide temporary relief, it can lead to long-term challenges, such as memory gaps, identity confusion, and difficulty integrating the traumatic experience into their life narrative. Understanding this connection helps the therapeutic process and healing, as addressing the underlying trauma is essential for healing and reducing dissociative symptoms.

Traumatic experiences that may lead to dissociation include:

  • Childhood abuse
  • Adult abuse
  • Witnessing violence and abuse
  • Loss of an important relationship
  • Vicarious trauma
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Living in fear
  • Bullying, discrimination
  • Accidents
  • Combat and war, torture, kidnapping, trafficking, natural disaster
  • Hospitalisation

A Powerful Protective Mechanism.

Dissociation can serve as a protective mechanism during times of stress or trauma, offering individuals a temporary respite from overwhelming emotions. Like an emergency brake, it allows individuals to step back from the intensity of the moment and regain their bearings before processing the situation fully. Furthermore, dissociation isn’t always negative; it can be a gateway to positive experiences like entering a state of flow or indulging in creative daydreams. In these instances, it provides a valuable opportunity for relaxation and self-reflection, offering a break from the demands of everyday life. However, like any tool, it can be double-edged; it’s a sword that can both defend and wound, depending on how it’s used.

Daydreaming Zoning Out Woman on Road

When dissociation can become a problem (the signs).

While dissociation can be useful in the short term, persistent dissociation may indicate underlying issues, necessitating further exploration and support. Signs of chronic dissociation include feeling disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings, memory gaps, and detachment from emotions or sensations.

Signs of Dissociation:

  1. Feeling ‘spacey’, ‘floaty’, or like your brain is ‘foggy’
  2. Sleepiness during challenging situations
  3. Calm appearance under stress, feeling emotionally numb
  4. Difficulty thinking clearly under stress
  5. Feeling disconnected from reality or the body
  6. Trouble identifying own feelings, experiencing memory lapses
  7. Frustration from others due to perceived inattentiveness or delayed reactions
  8. Feeling like a different person or having out-of-body experiences
  9. Physical sensations like heart pounding or light-headedness, emotional numbness or detachment
  10. Altered perceptions of time, experiencing tunnel vision, hearing voices, intense flashbacks, immobility, or absorption in a fantasy world.

‘Doom Scrolling’ – Social Media, Technology and Dissociation

Have you ever decided to take a quick look at one of your social media feeds, only to put your phone back down and realise you’ve been mindlessly scrolling for hours? This dissociation is exacerbated by the pervasive influence of social media and technology. While traditional dissociative experiences, such as daydreaming, are often considered normative and even beneficial, this digital dissociation differs significantly. Characterised by mindless scrolling and absorption in virtual content, sometimes called ‘doom scrolling,’ it leads to a disconnection from immediate surroundings and inner thoughts.

Unlike traditional dissociation, which can protect us and enhance creativity and mental well-being, this digital form can hinder social interactions, diminish attention span, and deepen feelings of loneliness. Normal dissociation, encompassing experiences like daydreaming and flow, narrows attention to exclude other mental content, leading to a loss of self-awareness and reflection. However, the profound impact of technology on cognitive engagement suggests a link between normative dissociation and social media usage, with users reporting a sense of disorientation and loss of control after prolonged exposure. Social media platforms are designed to exacerbate this dissociation, leaving users trapped in a never-ending loop of information overload. It’s like being trapped in a digital quicksand, easily and constantly accessible through our smartphones.

Doom scrolling social media dissociation digital platform

Impacts on Life and Relationships

Although dissociation may serve as a defensive psychological response in childhood, its persistence into adulthood can pose significant challenges, particularly in social and professional spheres. Instances of going “blank” during important discussions or feeling disconnected in crucial meetings can lead to missed opportunities and strained relationships. Moreover, frequent dissociative episodes may contribute to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and hinder overall performance in various life domains.

In interpersonal relationships, dissociation can create barriers to emotional intimacy and communication, worsening feelings of disconnection and misunderstanding. While occasional daydreaming is normal, chronic dissociation requires attention and support, as it can hinder personal growth and impede recovery from trauma. Seeking guidance from an experienced therapist to address underlying trauma is crucial for overcoming dissociation and cultivating healthier relationships and life outcomes.

Reclaiming Presence and Autonomy: ‘Being in the Body’

Reconnecting with the body is one method that can be useful in overcoming dissociation, facilitating a return to the present moment and fostering awareness of bodily sensations. Somatic therapies can offer avenues for achieving this reconnection. Examples of these methods include:

  • Deep breathing: Inhale deeply while counting to focus on the breath and anchor yourself in the present.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Tense and relax different muscle groups sequentially to release tension and promote bodily awareness.
  • Body scanning: Pay attention to each part of the body systematically, noting any sensations or areas of tension.
  • Tuning into sounds: Listen to the environment around you, focusing on different sounds to shift attention away from dissociative thoughts.
  • Barefoot walking: Feel the texture of the ground beneath your feet to enhance sensory awareness and connection with the environment.
  • Tactile sensations: Wrap yourself in a blanket or hold objects with interesting textures to engage the sense of touch and ground yourself.
  • Ice cube technique: Hold an ice cube or splash cold water on your face to stimulate the senses and bring attention back to the present moment.
  • Engaging with textures and smells: Explore objects like smooth stones or scented items to immerse yourself in sensory experiences and promote grounding.

Therapy can be useful in tackling dissociation and its root causes, offering a supportive and safe environment for individuals to confront past traumas and suggesting methods to help ground you when dissociating. Various therapeutic approaches, including cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), and trauma-focused approaches like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), are useful in aiding individuals to recognise triggers and process traumatic experiences. Furthermore, therapeutic methods such as somatic experiencing and mindfulness-based practices play a crucial role in fostering a reconnection with the body and the present moment.

Disassociation serves as a powerful defensive response to stress and trauma, offering a temporary respite from what is happening around us. However, it can hinder personal growth if left unchecked. Recognising the differences between normal dissociation and trauma-induced dissociation is important, as is understanding the impact of digital dissociation, exacerbated by modern digital technology. By acknowledging the signs of dissociation due to trauma and seeking guidance in therapy, presence and autonomy in life can begin to be reclaimed.