Everyone’s mind wanders. We tend to stare into space, perhaps awkwardly staring at someone and once we realize it, we look away apologetically. It’s something that happens to everybody, but what if this occurs constantly? Is it purposeful or unintentional? Could we possibly be staring off into the distance to avoid the present situation at hand?
As human beings, we are constantly thinking. For those who suffer from typical anxiety, it is as if the mind does not stop racing. In a way, it can be called a defense mechanism used to avoid feeling the environment they are currently in, thus putting themselves on autopilot. The anxiety can be situational, meaning within the present moment the person feels uncomfortable and the mind does not stop thinking about possible factors that can take place. For example, one that suffers from anxiety may have difficulties walking into a new room with a large number of unknown faces. If and when they do walk into that room, their mind can go a mile a minute thinking, “Is everyone staring at me?”, “Am I overdressed?”, “I should have stayed home.” While trying to remove themselves from the present moment, one can intentionally or unintentionally let their minds wander and think of something else to get through the situation. If it is not situational, these symptoms can be recurring and can happen at any time of the day. Studies show that people who tend to unintentionally let their minds wander off report symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety.
There is a constant craving for an escape, whether the need to withdraw from the present is intended or not. Those who suffer from anxiety often try to disappear into a fantasy that is unrelated to the task(s) currently at hand. Mind wandering however, can lead to dangerous outcomes. For example, an individual may not be paying attention to the road ahead while driving. In an academic setting teachers may grow frustrated with a child who seems inattentive, dismissing the possibility that they are suffering from depression, anxiety, or stress. Although mind wandering can act as a protective shield from the emotions of someone who suffers from anxiety, it can have detrimental effects on the individual.
Next time you find yourself or a loved one wandering off into space constantly or they’re on autopilot, try reaching out. What are they trying to protect themselves from? Is it to avoid something in particular? It’s also important to note that if you are trying to calm the mind, it can be helpful to meditate. Meditation can help someone who suffers from anxiety focus on one task at a time and can decrease mind wandering. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes of deep breathing and peace. The world can be chaotic, but the mind doesn’t always have to be.
Marcusson-Clavertz, D., & Kjell, O. N. E. (2018). Psychometric properties of the Spontaneous and Deliberate Mind Wandering Scales. European Journal of Psychological Assessment. https://doi-org.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/10.1027/1015-5759/a000470 (Supplemental)
Free Image on Pixabay – Girl, Blonde, Blond, Looking. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photos/girl-blonde-blond-looking-window-690297/.
Seli, P., Beaty, R. E., Marty-Dugas, J., & Smilek, D. (2019). Depression, anxiety, and stress and the distinction between intentional and unintentional mind wandering. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 6(2), 163–170. https://doi-org.proxy.library.stonybrook.edu/10.1037/cns0000182