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When Is ‘Staring Into Space’ A Sign That We Need To Focus On Our Mental Health?


Staring into space, distracted from reality, can be a sign of mental ill-health, of depression and a sign that we need support and rest.

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We might have a friend who has a habit of staring off into space, always thinking about something completely obscure. Perhaps they seem to be in another world entirely, perfectly content in their alternate universe, yet they appear to function absolutely fine in ours when they bring themselves back down to earth. When they do, they will usually happily talk to us about whatever off-the-wall concept they were thinking about. 

These individuals, however, are the exception to the rule. In general, if we find ourselves staring into space regularly, it could be a sign of something more concerning. 

Staring into space can often be caused by feeling completely overworked and overwhelmed. When we’re stressed, we can become consumed by our thoughts, and can physically shut down, tuning out the outside world. However, it is important to be aware of any accompanying symptoms of staring into space, to ensure that this isn’t a symptom of something that requires urgent medical attention. 

Dissociative Disorders

A dissociative disorder can have symptoms in addition to staring into space, such as feeling no or little pain, being unsure of who we are, exhibiting multiple personalities, feeling disconnected from the world around us, and/or forgetting periods of time, events or personal information. If we are experiencing any of these additional systems, it is important that we reach out for help and make an appointment with our GP as soon as possible. For more information the following sources may be useful:

Catatonia

Catatonia is exhibited by a person appearing to no longer have control of their body. In this state, we may be completely stationary and appear to be staring blankly, or we may seem to not be in control of our physical actions. This is known as being in a ‘catatonic state’. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has more in-depth information on catatonia if we are concerned for ourselves or someone else. It is essential medical assistance is sought urgently so we receive the support we need as soon as possible. 

Epileptic Absence Seizures

This form of seizure can be missed, because it can appear that a person is daydreaming, and therefore we do not experience the same concern as we would should a seizure manifest itself in physical form. On top of not being able to be removed from our blank state, these seizures may happen during physical activity when it would be abnormal to ‘daydream’ and last for approximately 10-20 seconds. The Epilepsy Foundation is a fantastic source of information on absence seizures. We should seek urgent medical assistance if we are showing signs of absence seizures.  

We can stare into space when we are feeling completely overwhelmed

During these periods, we may experience a form of numbness. It is as if our bodies no longer have the energy to remain firmly grounded in reality, so we shut down, like a computer crashing and freezing when too many tabs are open on the screen. 

Counter to this, it could feel more like all the energy our body has is currently being taken up by our brain. There are so many thoughts going on that the rest of our body has shut down. This is similar to a computer telling us to shut down all other windows to allow one particular program to take up our computer’s full capacity. We physically shut down to deal with the mental load we are carrying. 

When this is happening, our body may appear completely stationary, but this does not mean we are not experiencing physical manifestations of our inner turmoil. Shutting down in this way can be accompanied by headaches, stomach aches, racing heart, extreme fatigue and more. 

When staring into space is a sign that we need to rest

When staring into space is a sign that we need to rest
We all need time to unplug, reset and recoup. Photo: Team Design

A lot of us might feel like we have far too much going on to even think about carving out time for rest, but sometimes rest is the only way we can keep moving forward. Making the conscious decision to stop and actively rest is better than getting to a point where our bodies force us to. It can completely rejuvenate us and give us the energy and headspace to tackle what previously felt impossible. 

Rest does not have to mean sleep. Rest may be reading a book, watching a TV series, or taking a bath. Resting for our mental health does not mean that we must physically rest. For many of us, going for a run or walk, or taking part in some other form of exercise, allows our mind to rest, even if our body is active.  

When we try and try, but we cannot rest – Creating a ‘now’ and ‘not now’ list

We are lying down and waiting for sleep, but it will not come, and we simply cannot concentrate on an activity that we usually find re-energises us, despite our best efforts. We are the equivalent of a computer with the screen jammed and stationary, with every tab open and whirring in the background, achieving nothing. We are pushing the shutdown button but cannot turn it off. We are shattered, frustrated, overwhelmed – at our complete wit’s end. 

When we feel like this, we can look at the list of open tabs, the list that keeps cropping into our head, and prioritise. This can be as simple as a ‘now’ and ‘not now’ list. There may be truly urgent things that can’t wait, for example, perhaps we have an unwell child who needs attending to, or we need to get to a doctor’s appointment regarding a concerning health issue. This is our ‘now’ list. Everything else is ‘not now’.

If we are so overwhelmed and fatigued that we aren’t sure what should be on our ‘now’ list, we can chat it through with a friend or family member. Although we might put off asking for help, fearing we will be a burden on others if we do, we will often find that most people will be more than willing to do what they can to help us out. 

Once we have addressed the urgent ‘now’ list, then hopefully we will have closed enough tabs in the whirring computer that is our brain to allow us to finally shut down and get some rest.

When we do not have the solutions to our ‘now’ list

When staring into space is a sign we need to rest
In order to flourish, our basic needs must first be met. Photo: Team Design

There might be things on our ‘now’ list that are urgent, but it may be that we’re struggling to address them. Perhaps we’re finding it difficult to meet our basic needs. This is a scary position to be in, but there is help out there and resources that we can reach out to. 

We might feel hesitant about reaching out, due to the stigma or embarrassment around needing support to meet our basic needs, but if we are finding ourselves in this position, then contacting an organisation like Citizen’s Advice can make a massive difference. We might find that we are entitled to additional financial support from the government for example, or, if we are living in accommodation that isn’t fit for purpose, that our landlord has responsibilities that they are not meeting. 

Organisations like Citizen’s Advice are sometimes provided with additional funding to allow them to assist struggling families with food, gas or electric vouchers, or they can signpost and refer to other support services such as local food banks, social supermarkets or community fridges. 

If we still can’t rest, or this is a common occurrence, we need to seek professional help

Returning to the computer analogy again, if we have tried all of the troubleshooting methods and we still aren’t getting anywhere, then our next step is to reach out to a specialist. The same goes for our mental health.

In this scenario, we may be prescribed sleeping pills and/or anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medication to help us rest and improve our mental health. We may also be offered some form of therapy, depending on our accompanying symptoms. Some doctors may even be able to refer us to our local gym for a free membership if they feel a more active lifestyle will benefit our mental health. 

It may be that we have an underlying health condition that is exacerbating issues with our mental health. Thyroid problems, for example, can have a massive impact on our mood, as can diabetes if it is not being managed well. Our GP might recommend some blood tests to make sure that there are no underlying physical causes behind our inability to rest. 

Rest is vital to our quality of life. We deserve the rest we need so we have the energy to say ‘yes’ to all of those things we want to say yes to.

For further information and help the following articles may be useful:

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Resource

Blurtitout employs stringent sourcing standards, using only peer-reviewed studies and academic research to ensure the accuracy of its content. For details on their editorial process, you can visit their website. This commitment to reliable sources is crucial in the health and medical fields. If you need help finding or interpreting these sources

  1. Mind.org.uk. (2023). What is dissociation? [online] Available at: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/dissociation-and-dissociative-disorders/about-dissociation/.
  2. NHS Choices (2024). Dissociative disorders. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/dissociative-disorders/.
  3. Psychiatry.org. (2024). What Are Dissociative Disorders? [online] Available at: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/dissociative-disorders/what-are-dissociative-disorders.
  4. www.rcpsych.ac.uk. (2022). Catatonia | Royal College of Psychiatrists. [online] Available at: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/mental-illnesses-and-mental-health-problems/catatonia.
  5. Epilepsy Foundation. (2019). Absence Seizures | Symptoms & Risks | Epilepsy Foundation. [online] Available at: https://www.epilepsy.com/what-is-epilepsy/seizure-types/absence-seizures#If-someone-has-absence-seizures,-how-often-will-they-happen?
  6. Kapil, R. (2021). How to Take Care of Yourself When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed – Mental Health First Aid. [online] Mental Health First Aid. Available at: https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/2021/03/how-to-take-care-of-yourself-when-youre-feeling-overwhelmed/.
  7. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). (2024). I’m So Stressed Out! Fact Sheet. [online] Available at: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-fact-sheet.
  8. British Red Cross. (2017). Free self-kindness toolkit for adults | British Red Cross. [online] Available at: https://www.redcross.org.uk/get-help/get-help-with-loneliness/wellbeing-support/self-kindness-toolkit?gad_source=1&gclid=CjwKCAjwz42xBhB9EiwA48pT7wZN3b2JxtzmjRhorUf9r082IUjM483sGXSuLGCGok1xsSn4pDdKBRoCBhYQAvD_BwE.

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