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Why do I feel like I’m dreaming but I’m awake?

The sensation of feeling like you’re dreaming while awake can be a perplexing and even alarming experience. Known as dissociation, experiences like this occur when there is a disconnect between your thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions or identity. It’s as if your mind is detached from reality, making you feel foggy, spaced out, or as if you’re outside yourself watching a movie. While dissociation can be troubling, it usually isn’t cause for concern. Learning about what’s behind this phenomenon and techniques to manage it can help you get a handle on why you feel like you’re dreaming while awake.

What Causes That “Dreamy” Feeling?

There are a few key reasons why you may feel detached from reality or as if you’re in a dream-like zone while awake:

Severe Stress or Trauma

Dissociation often stems from your brain’s attempt to shield you from experiencing trauma or intense stress. By emotionally and mentally checking out, you create distance from painful or overwhelming situations. The more frequent and severe the trauma, the more likely dissociation becomes an unconscious coping mechanism. Those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently experience dissociation along with flashbacks as the brain struggles to integrate the difficult memories.

Mental Health Conditions

Besides PTSD, other mental health conditions are linked to chronic dissociation including borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety and panic disorders. When you regularly feel emotionally unavailable, socially isolated, fearful or on edge, dissociation provides an escape from inner turmoil. Those with derealization-depersonalization disorder suffer persistent dissociation that impairs their ability to function.

Substance Use

Certain recreational and prescription drugs can induce a trance-like disconnected state that mimics dreaming. Psychedelics like LSD provide hallucinogenic effects that distort reality. Stimulant “highs” from cocaine, methamphetamines or excessive caffeine disconnect you from your body and surroundings. Coming down off opioids like heroin also produces a foggy, removed feeling. Marijuana use can trigger depersonalization. Excessive alcohol leads to blackouts where you act without awareness.

Sleep Deprivation

Not getting enough sleep, or the lack of quality slow-wave and REM sleep, are linked to next-day dissociation. Without proper rest, you’re more susceptible to that zoned-out feeling. Sleep disorders like insomnia or apnea that frequently interrupt sleep further the risk. Feeling jet lagged after changing time zones can also spark dissociative sensations.


For some people, deep meditative states cause temporary feelings of depersonalization. By tuning out senses, thoughts and surroundings to reach intense focus, you can feel detached as you come out of meditation. This is more likely with certain visualization techniques. However, meditation should reduce dissociation over time by promoting mindfulness.

Medical Conditions

Seizures, head injuries, migraines, Alzheimer’s disease, brain tumors, stroke and multiple sclerosis can trigger dissociative episodes. Temporal lobe epilepsy in particular is associated with recurring dissociative states. Certain vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disorders and neurochemical imbalances may also play a role in dissociation.

When to Seek Help

Occasional, brief periods of feeling disconnected from yourself or reality are usually nothing to worry about. However, seek medical advice if dissociation:

– Happens frequently and persistently
– Causes significant distress
– Negatively impacts your relationships or daily functioning
– Puts you at risk of self-harm or injury
– Is accompanied by hallucinations or loss of memory
– Stems from an existing condition like PTSD, anxiety, depression or addiction

Seeing a doctor can rule out underlying neurological conditions. A mental health professional can determine if dissociation relates to a psychiatric disorder and provide counseling and therapy to manage symptoms.

Coping Strategies

You can minimize dissociative episodes through self-care techniques that enhance emotional regulation and ground you in the present moment:

Practice mindfulness

Yoga, meditation, deep breathing, observing nature or repetitive motions like knitting keep you focused on your senses and environment. This counters feelings of detachment.

Express your creativity

Immersing yourself in music, art, writing or other creative outlets provides a constructive escape and releases tension.

Get regular exercise

Physical activity, especially outdoors, can soothe anxiety while promoting grounding sensations in your body.

Avoid substance use

Reduce or eliminate alcohol, recreational or prescription drug use that may contribute to dissociation.

Improve sleep habits

Ensure you get at least 7-8 hours of quality sleep per night through sleep hygiene techniques. Address any sleep disorders.

Talk to a friend or loved one

Verbalizing your feelings or describing your surroundings to someone helps reinforce connections with reality.

Use sensory anchors

Fidget toys, textured objects, calming scents, or loud music provide sensory input to keep you present.

Splash cold water on your face

The physical sensation of temperature change instantly snaps you into the here and now.

Seek counseling or therapy

Treatment provides coping strategies for underlying trauma, anxiety, depression or addiction issues tied to dissociation.

When to Seek Emergency Help

In rare, severe cases, dissociation may become uncontrolled and require emergency care. Seek immediate medical help if you experience:

– Prolonged detachment from reality for more than a day
– Disorientation, confusion or incoherence
– Risky, reckless behaviors while dissociating
– Sudden inability to speak or move
– Full blackouts or memory loss
– Self-harm urges or suicidal thoughts

The Takeaway

That spaced out, dreamy feeling while awake is usually nothing more than a bout of mild dissociation. Stress, anxiety, trauma, lack of sleep and certain substances often underlie sensations of feeling detached from yourself or surroundings. While uncomfortable, episodic dissociation is manageable with self-care strategies like mindfulness, creativity and adequate rest. But recurrent dissociation that severely disrupts daily life may need medical evaluation and mental health therapy. Understanding the common reasons why you feel like dreaming while awake helps you identify any underlying causes and find the right coping techniques.