ADHD Zoning Out vs Dissociation

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Many people use the terms “zoning out”, “being spaced out”, and “feeling dissociated” or “depersonalized” interchangeably. However, they are all different and may indicate mild to severe psychological difficulties. 

Let’s look at what zoning out is and how it differs from dissociation, especially in the context of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Zoning Out vs. Dissociation – Key Differences

Characteristic Zoning Out Dissociation
Awareness of surroundings Typically aware May feel detached from surroundings
Return to focus Relatively easy May be difficult or impossible
Causes ADHD, boredom, daydreaming, etc. Trauma, stress, mental health conditions
Symptoms Loss of focus, daydreaming, mind wandering Altered sense of self, time, space, memory, concentration, emotions

What is zoning out?

If you have ever started to feel spaced out, distracted, or not “in the moment,” then you might be experiencing what people call “zoning out.” Zoning out is essentially a mild form of dissociation. Dissociation, on the other hand, is a more severe form of feeling disconnected.

Most of us feel spacey and zoned out at various times. The most common reasons are being bored, distracted, physically exhausted, and not being interested in whatever you do. However, there are clinical conditions that can cause you to zone out. These include trauma, ADHD, dissociative disorder, certain kinds of personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, and even mood disorders and anxiety. 

In other words, practically, most psychological difficulties may cause you to zone out. You may even zone out when you are bored, tired, or uninterested!

Examples of being zoned out include:

  • Being in a classroom while being fully aware that there is a lecture taking place, but not really listening to it.
  • Hanging around with a bunch of friends while not being in the moment, although others are enjoying.
  • Performing pleasurable activities, such as listening to music, reading a book, or even being with your loved one, but not being able to enjoy it.
  • Feeling overwhelmed, bored, distracted, or just not feeling anything regardless of what’s happening around you. Some may even describe this as “feeling numb.”
  • Engaging in flights of fantasy while something important is taking place. For example, you may think about shopping or remember something traumatic when an important meeting is taking place. 

As you can see, there are several contexts and situations in which you might zone out, including having ADHD. 

Why do people with ADHD zone out?

People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder find it difficult to concentrate or pay attention to things. Usually, children are diagnosed with ADHD. But adult ADHD is becoming an increasingly common diagnosis. 

People with ADHD find it very difficult to pay attention, and it is almost always an involuntary process. Both adults and youngsters with ADHD may be hyperactive and find it difficult to pay attention to things that others easily can. Not being able to pay attention to the environment or the situation results in spacing out or zoning out, which are all involuntary coping mechanisms to escape having to pay attention. 

Spacing out in ADHD is not due to trauma but is a coping mechanism to deal with inattention and overwhelming situations. It can worsen when you haven’t had enough sleep. Curiously, it may even happen when you are well-rested. It is simply not possible for people with ADHD to pay attention for more extended periods because their brains automatically space out on their own. 

Please note, zoning out that is associated with dissociative disorders is markedly different and tends to be more severe as well. 

What is a dissociative disorder?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), dissociative disorders are mental health conditions that involve an experience of being disconnected from thoughts, memories, identity, surroundings, and behavior. This disconnect from reality is usually involuntary and can cause severe problems in everyday life. Dissociative disorders typically result as a response to traumatic episodes during childhood and sometimes during adulthood. 

Typical symptoms of dissociation:

  • People who dissociate often describe their experience as being disconnected from their body, and watching themselves from above or from a distance. 
  • Others may even lose consciousness or memory for a while.
  • A person feels detached from reality or their surroundings.
  • Some people may assume different identities, which was previously known as multiple personality disorder. 
  • Other examples of clinical dissociation include dissociative amnesia, which is associated with a person going away to an unknown place and assuming a new identity without being able to recall their previous life.

As you can see, zoning out is less serious than many examples listed here, which are serious psychiatric conditions. 

Symptoms of dissociative disorder

There are, in fact, several dissociative disorders. The DSM5 lists three of them

  1. Dissociative amnesia: This condition results in a loss of memory that is more serious than regular forgetfulness. Other medical conditions, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, etc., cannot explain memory loss. It often presents itself as dissociative fugue. During a state of dissociative fugue, a person may make unplanned travel to a location, assume a completely new identity, and be unable to remember who they are. Fugue may last for days to months and sometimes even longer. 
  1. Dissociative identity disorder: A person with this condition often assumes two more identities or “personalities.” Each identity usually has a unique personal history, and they may be at war with each other too. Previously, this condition was known as multiple personality disorder. This disorder is usually rare in clinical situations. It was popularly represented in the 1976 TV mini-series Sybil
  1. Depersonalization-derealization disorder: A person with this condition usually has a sense of detachment from oneself. They may often describe that they are outside their physical body, watching themselves from above or from a distance. They may also feel things are unreal and dreamlike. This sense of life being unreal is called derealisation. Many people with borderline personality disorder experience depersonalization and derealisation at various times in their lives.

How zoning out affects us

You may now understand that dissociation is a much more severe condition and is associated with serious mental health conditions. On the other hand, zoning out feels more like being spaced out, not being in the moment, or just feeling numb or dazed. Whether you have ADHD or not, zoning out can have negative consequences. 

  1. Interpersonal conflicts: People who zone out often are misunderstood by their partners, friends, and family. People around them may assume that they are being nonchalant or callous, which could lead to relationship problems. Parents with adult ADHD may neglect their children when they are zoned out, leading to complications in their children’s lives as well. 
  1. Occupational difficulties: If you often feel spaced out, you probably will perform poorly at work and may receive poor appraisals from your managers. In addition, if your job requires physical labor or handling equipment, you may injure yourself grievously. Imagine a workman at a railway line with ADHD who cannot pay attention to his work and zones out. There are huge chances of getting severely injured. 
  1. Psychological distress: When you cannot concentrate and frequently zone out, you may feel frustrated, angry, and guilty. Please recognize that zoning out is a symptom of multiple psychological conditions and is usually involuntary. If you feel distressed by frequent occurrences of zoning out, therapy can help you learn to focus, improve concentration, and get back to life. 

Zoning out can occur anytime

If you have ADHD or another psychological condition that causes zoning out, know you are not alone. It is always involuntary and a symptom of your underlying pathology. Consequently, it can occur anytime, even when you are least expecting to be spaced out. 

As a result, you may get into accidents, injure yourself, suffer from interpersonal and occupational difficulties, and experience psychological distress. Thankfully, zoning out can be managed with the help of cognitive retraining exercises and behavior management. 

Are ADHD and dissociative disorders similar?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a psychological condition that causes difficulties in paying attention, restraining oneself from being impulsive, and remaining calm and tranquil. Instead, a person with ADHD may frequently act out, stay hyperactive, find it difficult to focus or pay attention and engage in impulsive behaviors. This can lead to occupational and interpersonal difficulties. In addition, people with ADHD also experience psychological distress due to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. 

Dissociative disorders are characterized by feelings of depersonalization and derealisation, dissociative fugue/amnesia, and assuming multiple identities. These are a separate set of conditions and are not related to ADHD. However, people with ADHD may zone out sometimes and think they are dissociating. This is not entirely true. Genuine dissociation is more severe than zoning out and requires psychiatric and psychological assistance. Of course, people with ADHD also need therapy, medicines, and occupational aid. 

To cut a long story short, other than zoning out, ADHD and dissociative disorders are not similar. 

Dissociation vs. Adult ADHD Zone Out Differences

DissociationAdult ADHD Zone Out
Dissociation may cause loss of memory and one may forget their personal information.When a person zones out, they may not be aware of the current situation, but they definitely know who they are. 
Characterized by a sense of being detached from oneself or one’s emotions.This may happen during zoning out, but it is quite mild in comparison to dissociation. 
A person who dissociates may feel that their surroundings are unreal and distorted. When you zone out, you may question how real the environment is, but you still know at the back of your mind that you are exactly where you are. 
Dissociation is marked by issues with identity, such as assuming multiple identities. This does not happen in the case of zoning out. You’ll definitely know who you are. 
Dissociation causes severe occupational, interpersonal, and psychological distress.Zoning out may cause similar difficulties, but it can be managed more easily. 

If you think you dissociate or zone out, seek help immediately.

It is important to note that most people use the term “dissociation” casually. Dissociation is not the same as zoning out. Moreover, dissociative disorders are actual diagnoses that require specific criteria to be met. 

Hence, it is possible to experience dissociation without meeting the criteria for one of the three dissociative disorders described by the DSM 5. For example, people with borderline personality disorder often experience depersonalization and derealization, but this is not a dissociative disorder. Similarly, zoning out is not the same as dissociation.

If you think you are either dissociating or zoning out, seeking help from a licensed mental health practitioner who can formulate a treatment plan is essential. This, of course, depends on whether you have ADHD/adult ADHD, a form of dissociative disorder, or another psychological condition with dissociation as one of the many symptoms. 

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