If you find yourself zoning out — or dissociating — at your desk, here are some ways to bring yourself back to the present.

Dissociation refers to a feeling of disconnect from your body or your surroundings.

While some degree of “zoning out” happens to everyone — such as daydreaming, getting lost in your thoughts, or getting into a flow at work — some forms of dissociation are more extreme than this.

Clinically speaking, dissociation typically arises when you have past experiences of trauma. It’s a protective state where your mind “separates” from your body to protect itself from the threat that you’re facing. Common forms of trauma include abuse, neglect, or accidents.

When you feel disconnected from reality unintentionally or consistently, at work or elsewhere, then it may be worth taking a closer look at why this is happening.

Psych Central spoke to Sol Rapoport, LMFT, a therapist based in Los Angeles, about the effects of dissociation at work and what you can do about it.

The American Psychiatric Association explains dissociation as a disconnection between someone’s thoughts, feelings, memories, behaviors, or sense of self.

It’s easy enough to catch yourself daydreaming and then snap yourself back into the present. But when your dissociative experiences are unintentional and upsetting, they may be harder to manage. This form of dissociation may be triggered by excessive stress, overwhelm, or memories of past traumas.

Types of dissociation include:

  • Depersonalization, where you feel a disconnect from your body. Some describe this as an out-of-body experience.
  • Derealization, where you feel your surrounding aren’t real. It can feel like you’re in a dream, and people or objects may appear distorted or “unreal.”

Dissociation may feel like you are disconnected from yourself or the world around you. You may have trouble remembering specific periods or personal information. You might feel like you’re watching a movie about yourself or have a blurred sense of identity.

“The most common source of dissociation is trauma,” shares Rapoport. “Basically, in times when something bad happens to you, your mind tries to protect you from the full impact of the experience by psychologically disconnecting from the present moment.”

Experiencing trauma in childhood can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including dissociation, in adulthood.

“If the trauma is not dealt with, people often continue to cope with the memories or the stress of the experience by disconnecting at times when they feel those thoughts or feelings come on,” explains Rapoport. “Dissociation can help people cope with traumatic experiences in the moment, but sometimes can then happen in non-traumatic situations.”

According to Rapoport, periods of dissociation can last a relatively short time (hours or days) or much longer (weeks or months), and “most people actually don’t realize that they have dissociated until they come back to the present.”

That said, it’s possible to learn to notice when you’ve been in a dissociative state.

Dissociation can happen anywhere, including in the workplace.

Rapoport identified several signs that dissociation is happening at work:

  • “zoning out” completely during meetings or in conversations with colleagues
  • suddenly realizing it’s much later in the day than you thought
  • “forgetting” to eat meals and not recognizing hunger or thirst
  • having trouble connecting with those around you

It’s also common to experience forgetfulness or an inability to cope well with professional stress. If you’re in a particularly stressful time at work or your work environment is generally stressful, this could also increase or heighten dissociation.

Office dynamics, such as interacting with people in positions of authority or feeling like you’re not good enough at your work, may remind you of trauma from your past. In many cases, you may not be aware of the connection, but your body remembers and responds by dissociating.

An estimated 83% of U.S. workers have work-related stress, with 25% reporting their job as their biggest source of stress.

With more people working from home since the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth noting that work and home environments have begun to blend more. This could heighten stress and dissociation for some people.

Dissociation can happen anywhere, and there are ways you can cope with dissociation no matter where you are.

“One of the best ways to cope with dissociation is to try to bring yourself back to the present,” says Rapoport.

Rapoport offers these simple techniques that help her clients reconnect to the present moment:

1. Splash cold water on your face

Try taking a quick trip to the bathroom and splashing cold water on your face. This can help you reconnect with your body and your surroundings.

2. Deep breathing

When you find yourself feeling disconnected, consider stepping back and taking a few deep, conscious breaths to soothe your nervous system.

Diaphragmatic breathing can help regulate your nervous system. “[Take] slow, deep breaths that go all the way to your diaphragm,” she explains. Changing how you breathe can change how you feel.

3. Grounding techniques

Grounding techniques can help you to reconnect with yourself and your surroundings. They can be very helpful when you’re experiencing dissociation.

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique allows you to connect with your senses and notice small details that your mind would usually tune out, such as distant sounds or the textures of things around you.

“Using [this method], you will purposefully take in the details of your surroundings using each of your senses,” says Rapoport.

To use this technique, find a quiet space and run through the following steps:

  1. name five things you can see
  2. name four things you can hear
  3. find three objects you can touch
  4. name two things you can smell
  5. name one thing you can taste

“Maybe you start noticing the specific color of the carpet, or you tune in to the sounds of computers, phones, and keyboards clicking…The idea is to be as present as possible,” says Rapoport.

4. Mental-based approach

“Some people find a mental-based approach useful, like making a list of as many animals, colors, or countries you can think of,” explains Rapoport.

“You can also describe to yourself (out loud, or if you don’t have privacy, in your head) the steps in performing an activity you know how to do well,” she says. “For example, how to park your car in the lot at work and make it into your office, how to prepare your favorite meal, or even how to tie a knot.”

5. Self-soothing

You may also want to consider having a self-soothing toolkit — whether at the office or in your home office. Think about simple things that could soothe you, such as:

  • your favorite tea blend
  • an aromatherapy roller
  • a stress ball or fidget toy
  • a soothing playlist

Whatever the cause of your dissociation, various coping methods can help.

It can take time to build awareness of when you are experiencing dissociative states. Along the way, try a few coping methods to see what works best for you.

If you still find yourself at a loss or are unsure how to recognize dissociation, you may want to consider working with a mental health professional who can help guide you.

Want to learn more about starting therapy? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.