Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are You “Zenning” Out or Numbing Out?

The difference between a healthy recharge and self-defeating coping.

Key points

  • When overwhelmed, it's easy to engage in self-defeating coping.
  • Self-defeating coping offers immediate relief but in the longer term reinforces stress.
  • Learning to sit with one's feeling means one no longer has to avoid one's very self.
  • A daily breathing practice can make all of the difference.

There are widely available means to lose track of time and escape yourself after a stressful day or period in your life. As a fact of life, many get home from work or put the kids to bed and binge on television, drink too much, or partake in endless internet scrolling. And for others, even during the work day, they find that when they have five minutes to themselves, they search the internet as a way to give themselves a break. There is a problem with these tools. They leave you feeling more depleted and emptier than your stressed-out day or moment did. As recent studies have shown, there’s a robust link between overusing social media and an increased risk of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

So, you enter that next work meeting or wake up the next morning feeling even more stressed and out of sync. Over time, the stress accumulates as you need more and more numbing out to get through, and you feel more and more like you’re treading water.

The problem is that when we are stressed, we want immediate relief and simply don’t have the bandwidth to do the things that are going to recharge us. When depleted and exhausted, it may take more reserves than we can muster. This is why the best practice is to do certain rituals every day. Rituals that keep the weight from building to an intolerable level so that eventually, you never, or rarely, feel like you’re treading water.

Numbing out refers to coping practices that take the edge off your stress immediately. It’s equivalent to a drug in the sense that you count on it to bring instant and reliable relief. Numbing out means you don’t think about or feel your stress. Numbing out includes binging on food, TV, the internet, social media, excessive use of alcohol, drug abuse, and gambling.

Sure, in the moment, you aren’t stressed when you’re numbing out because you’ve consumed a product that has effectively separated you from your body, so to speak. As a result, you no longer feel yourself at all… and herein is the problem: To truly recharge, you have to hold hands with, make friends with, and sing kumbaya with your body’s stress response.

It’s like a child believing a monster lives under their bed. They are afraid, avoid their bed, and are consumed with anxiety about this idea. Then one day, they get up the courage and take a peek under the bed and see there is no monster. Now they are free. The child no longer has to avoid their bed and can feel at ease. Similarly, as you confront your body and learn to sit with what you’re feeling, you no longer have to avoid yourself to feel better. Eventually, you can be at ease in your body, even when difficult situations are occurring around you.

Here’s how to effectively zen out and make friends with your body’s stress response:

Each day before and at the end of your day, take 10 minutes to sit with yourself. Sit with no distractions as you breathe in and out.

  1. As you breathe in, feel your chest rise; as you breathe out, feel your chest fall.
  2. Observe what the sensations are of breathing in and out.
  3. Recognize the physical sensations in your body.
  4. Start with your head and move down to your neck, chest, back, stomach, legs, all the way to your toes.
  5. Remember, everybody has physical sensations. Stress makes us afraid of these feelings, but they are all quite normal.
  6. Simply label the physical: head tension, stomach sinking, chest tight….
  7. Observe your chest rising and falling.
  8. Tell yourself, “I can make room for all of these sensations and still be OK.”

If you find this too overwhelming, use a pen and paper while engaging in the exercise. Write down what you notice in your body. Sometimes the practice of writing is just enough of a focus or distraction that it makes it easier to sit with what you’re feeling physically.

Remember, this is not a time to judge yourself or to problem-solve. This is a time to simply notice how your body feels physically and to bring comfort through the breath.

For more, check out my book: Overcoming Stress-Induced Brain Fog.

More from Jill P. Weber Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today