ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Spacing Out

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ADHD Symptom Spotlight is a series that dives deep into a hallmark or overlooked symptom of ADHD each week. This series is written by experts who also share their tips on managing these symptoms based on firsthand experience and research-backed insights.

Spacing out, zoning out, or blanking out are all ways to describe that experience of involuntarily losing your focus on a task. While attention fluctuates from moment to moment even in neurotypical brains, people with ADHD are prone to spacing out often.

On some days, these episodes of inattention can last so long or happen so frequently, that it makes it impossible to get work done. It can also be seen as rude or lazy if it happens during class or in conversations with friends.

Spacing Out With ADHD

Spacing out refers to those moments when your brain is no longer paying attention to its external surroundings or tasks. It’s an involuntary process that happens even when you are actively trying to pay attention.

If you’ve ever started reading a book, only to find yourself lost in thought or staring at the page without really seeing or comprehending the words, that was spacing out. Maybe you’ve experienced sitting in class and suddenly realizing that the teacher is talking about an entirely different topic and you have no idea how they got there—because you spaced out for a few minutes without realizing it.

Sometimes, it takes the form of daydreaming where your mind wanders off somewhere else, without you really noticing that it’s happening. Other times, your brain goes blank. It simply tunes out without tuning into anything else.

Technically, spacing out like this is a form of dissociation—a coping mechanism in which your brain checks out from the present moment. However, spacing out from ADHD is a milder case that’s not necessarily linked to trauma.

In people without ADHD, it can happen during periods of sleep deprivation or stress. When you have ADHD, though, it happens frequently, even when you are well rested and relaxed. In all cases, it’s completely involuntary. You don’t make the conscious decision to stop paying attention, your brain just switches off on its own.

This can become frustrating when you’re trying to study, finish a project for work, or even give your full, conscious attention to a friend as they tell you about their day. Any task that requires your attention becomes harder if you’re prone to spacing out often and without warning.

While it typically lasts for a few seconds or minutes before you realize you’ve stopped paying attention, it’s enough to make you miss your exit while driving, burn those cookies you were baking, or make your friend feel like you aren’t really listening to them.

What Causes Spacing Out?

The human brain has an interconnected threefold system for focusing its attention that involves the dorsal attention network, the ventral attention network, and the default mode network.

  • The dorsal attention network (DAN) is responsible for goal-driven attention when you’re consciously trying to pay attention to a task (like reading a book) and filter out anything else unrelated to that task.  
  • Meanwhile, the ventral attention network (VAN) is responsible for stimulus-driven attention or keeping you passively aware of your surroundings to watch for unexpected stimuli that require you to reorient your attention (like hearing someone call your name while you’re reading that book).
  • Finally, the default mode network (DMN) activates when the brain is not focused on an external task or on the outside world at all. It takes over when you’re resting but also during self-reflection, memory retrieval, imagining the future or a fantasy world, and other tasks that are entirely internal and don’t rely on external stimuli.

The DMN is also impacted by trauma, which can present symptoms similar to characteristics of ADHD (even though ADHD is genetic and is not caused by trauma). Trauma plays a significant role in the DMN of those with ADHD since all marginalized folks (including neurodivergent folks) are more susceptible to trauma.

In a typical brain, the three networks interact but also maintain a respectful separation from each other. When activity levels in one network increase, they decrease in the others and the quieter networks only interrupt when necessary. VAN won’t pull your attention away from the book unless it detects a stimulus that might actually be relevant to you. DMN won’t kick into gear until it’s time to rest or start internalizing the information you’ve just read.

In ADHD brains, however, these networks may not be as distinct as they should be, making it hard to switch gears as efficiently as in neurotypical brains. Specifically, the ADHD brain struggles to deactivate the DMN and switch exclusively into DAN or VAN.

So even when actively trying to focus on a task, DMN levels remain high in the ADHD brain, making it easy to slip back into that daydream or resting mode. That slippage could feel like the involuntary spacing out or zoning out that people with ADHD experience so often.

How to Deal With Spacing Out

Taking better care of your overall health to keep your brain strong and well-rested is one of the best ways to help minimize how often you space out in the long run. You can also try these short-term strategies for preventing or coping with it right now.

Make the Task More Active

If you engage more senses and muscles in a task, it can be easier to stay focused without spacing out. When listening to someone talk, for example, summarize what they’re saying in your head rather than just passively listening to them. You can also practice nonverbal cues like nodding in response to what they’re saying.

Fidgeting during a task is a helpful coping strategy for those with ADHD to do while completing tasks, and can minimize spacing out or disassociating.

If you keep spacing out while reading, try reading out loud. If that’s not enough, try reading out loud in an accent aside from your own. I sometimes read aloud in a horrible British or Australian accent, for example.

Take Notes

This goes hand in hand with making a task more active. When you take notes, you’re giving your hands something to do while engaging more of your brain to process and record what you’re hearing or reading.

For me, taking handwritten notes works best and I’ll even do it during casual conversations with friends—although, only over the phone because, admittedly, I’d feel weird doing this in person. I also write notes in the margins of books, even when I’m just reading them for fun.

For work, I take notes during every meeting and call. I take notes while interviewing sources, even when I’m already recording the interview. I take notes while researching articles (which might be the only area where extensive notetaking isn’t unusual).

Ask Clarifying Questions

With books, you can simply go back to the last sentence you remember before your mind wandered. With people, on the other hand, it can get awkward if you’re constantly asking them to repeat what they just said. This is true even if the person knows you have ADHD and is aware that spacing out is part of that.

Instead, ask clarifying questions that probe for more details about what they’re telling you. This will give you more context to work with in case you space out again and need to reorient yourself. It might also trigger them to repeat some of the information you missed.

Take Breaks

If you’re spacing out so often that you can’t even make progress on the task, take a break. It’s better to put the task or conversation on hold than to keep having to restart every few minutes. During that break, do some kind of self-care activity like:

  • Take a nap
  • Eat a (healthy) snack
  • Go for a walk
  • Take a shower

Pick an activity that lets your brain rest while you do something to improve your health or well-being. That way, when you return to the task after the break, you’re coming to it in a better state than you were in when you left.

Be Upfront About Your Spacing Out

Spacing out is part of having ADHD. While you can use different hacks to minimize how often and how long you space out, it might still be inevitable. Try being proactive about it by explaining this tendency to friends, family, and coworkers.

It’s easier for others to be patient and understanding when they know in advance that you aren’t just ignoring them or defiantly choosing not to listen. Supportive friends, partners, and family members will be understanding of your ADHD traits, including spacing out.

Keep in mind that it is a tendency of the ADHD brain and does not indicate that a person isn't trying hard enough.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.