Common Causes of Spacing Out and How to Know When to See a Healthcare Provider

Spacing out is relatively common. You may have experienced it yourself and wondered what it means. You may have noticed a friend or family member spacing out. While in rare cases it might be a medical emergency or the warning sign of a serious health problem, most of the time it is not.

Here are some important clues to help you figure out what it really means if you have been told that it seems your "head is in the clouds."

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Causes of Spacing Out

Generally, "spacing out" means that you are not in the moment, or that your mind is somewhere else. Daydreaming is the most common kind of spacing out. It is generally nothing to worry about. But there are more serious kinds of spacing out that can be caused by a medical condition.

Here's a list of the potential medical causes behind spacing out.

Transient Ischemic Attack

transient ischemic attack is a brief, reversible stroke that does not cause permanent damage. Sometimes, people who experience a TIA are aware of what is going on, but occasionally people are not able to communicate during a TIA. Sometimes people who experience a TIA cannot remember the event itself.

Seizure

A seizure is usually associated with reduced consciousness and some loss of awareness. While seizures are typically associated with uncontrolled body movements, some seizures result in a brief episode of loss of awareness without these movements. This type is known as an absence seizure.

Hypotension

Very low blood pressure can cause reduced blood flow to the brain. This condition is called hypotension. If you experience hypotension, you might feel dizzy or lightheaded. You might also lose focus or general awareness for a few seconds or minutes.

Hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia, which means low blood sugar, can cause you to lose your sense of awareness for a brief period of time. In more extreme cases, hypoglycemia can make you pass out. Mild cases can trigger an episode that appears to be spacing out.

Migraine

Migraine headaches usually cause pain. Sometimes the pain is so severe that it can prevent you from paying attention to your surroundings. Occasionally, however, migraines can cause unusual symptoms such as spacing out, even in the absence of pain.

Transient Global Amnesia

Transient global amnesia is a temporary interruption of short-term memory. This is a rare event that can last for hours at a time. If you experience transient global amnesia, you will not remember events. However, you may appear to behave appropriately and normally to those around you.

Some people who have transient global amnesia might get lost or be unable to do complex tasks during the episode.

Fatigue

Extreme fatigue can take a toll on your body and mind. You might space out. While you appear to be awake, your brain struggles to maintain alertness.

Narcolepsy

A sleep condition called narcolepsy can cause you to sleep while you appear to be awake. Also, extreme sleepiness can result in falling asleep while you are participating in activities. You might actually dream while doing tasks. Everyone around you would likely interpret your responses as spacing out.

Intoxication or Drug-Altered State

Mind-altering drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and even alcohol can have unpredictable effects. These drugs may cause you to become unaware of your behavior or to forget events.

Distraction

Spacing out can occur when you are mentally or emotionally consumed by something other than the task at hand. For example, you might space out while watching or listening to something you consider a bit boring or during driving.

Stress

Stress is a common distraction. It can be overwhelming to the point that it is difficult to pay attention to your tasks and responsibilities, especially if they aren't very important. But extreme stress can cause you to space out even if the task at hand is important.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you have a problem with spacing out, you need to figure out whether you require medical attention or just some rest.

Use this information to help you unravel whether your spacing out is serious or whether you just have your head in the clouds.

Red Flags

Seek medical attention if your "spacing out" includes any of these symptoms:

  • Repeat episodes
  • Memory loss
  • Odd behavior
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Being injured during an episode

Repeated Episodes

If you are repeatedly finding yourself spacing out or being accused of spacing out, you need to determine whether you have too many things distracting you or whether you truly can't help it. If there isn't an obvious reason, such as a big project you are working on, then you should mention the problem to your healthcare provider.

Lack of Memory

If you can't recall events that happened or things that you did during an episode of spacing out, you may have had a medical event like those listed above.

Strange Behavior

If you noticed that you misplaced objects during episodes of spacing out, or if you have been told that you behaved in an odd or violent manner that is uncharacteristic for you, then you definitely need further evaluation.

Loss of Bowel or Bladder Control

If you found that you lost control of your bowel or bladder, then you certainly need a medical evaluation by your healthcare provider.

Injury

If you have noticed any injury after spacing out, particularly if you do not remember how it occurred, then your episodes are dangerous for you and could become more so. It is time to make every attempt to put a stop to them.

Summary

Everyone spaces out from time to time. While spacing out can simply be a sign that you are sleep deprived, stressed, or distracted, it can also be due to a transient ischemic attack, seizure, hypotension, hypoglycemia, migraine, transient global amnesia, fatigue, narcolepsy, or drug misuse.

If you have repeated episodes or experience a lack of memory, loss of bowel or bladder control, or strange behavior while spacing out, it's important to seek medical help.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health 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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  4. Cleveland Clinic. Transient Global Amnesia. Updated September 13, 2019.

  5. National Sleep Foundation. Narcolepsy.

  6. The American Institute of Stress. 50 Common Signs and Symptoms of Stress.

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