Mental-Cognitive Symptoms

How Anxiety Causes Disorientation

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

How Anxiety Causes Disorientation

Disorientation is when you cannot seem to focus on the time, place or activities that are happening at the current moment. A person is said to be disoriented when they seem at a loss for what's going on, often with considerable confusion.

There is often a subjective feeling of disorientation when a person has anxiety, especially during an anxiety attack. It's common for those with intense stress and anxiety to suddenly feel completely disoriented as that anxiety takes over.

Disorientation During and After Severe Anxiety

If you feel disoriented for an extended period of time or have suffered profound memory loss, it is important to visit a doctor. Anxiety disorientation tends not to last a significant period of time, and often comes and goes during times of intense anxiety.

Most disorientation occurs during or after an anxiety attack. It's rare for someone with anxiety to feel disoriented at random, especially without additional anxiety symptoms.

Types of Anxiety Disorientation

Anxiety disorientation tends to be more subjective. It most often occurs when it's simply too hard to follow your thoughts or pay attention to your surroundings because you're stuck "inside of your own head." There are two general causes of this feeling of being disoriented, although these are certainly not the only possible reasons this feeling may occur:

Rapid Thoughts

One of the more common reasons for feeling disoriented is that you're suffering from so many overwhelming and rapid thoughts that you struggle to think about where you are, what you're doing, or your surroundings.

Racing thoughts are a common symptom of anxiety attacks, as are thoughts that are so focused on how you feel and your symptoms that you struggle to focus on anything else. The thoughts and the feeling of doom that come from anxiety are so overwhelming, that the person subjectively struggles with the moment, and may forget what's happening or be less responsive to their surroundings.

This is a type of disorientation that is slightly different than what one would expect from diseases that affect the mind. It's not necessarily confusion, so much an inability to focus because of the wave of physical and emotional symptoms.

Hyperventilation

Hyperventilating can also cause you to feel disoriented. Hyperventilation is a common problem with people that have anxiety attacks. Hyperventilation can occur for many reasons - not just breathing quickly, although that is common with anxiety as well - and when it does, it reduces blood flow to your brain.

This can cause you to feel "spacey" and lightheaded, almost as though you might faint. In rare cases, some people do faint. When hyperventilation is at its worst, it can cause you to feel incredibly disoriented because your brain doesn't have enough energy to concentrate.

In some cases this may also be combined with the racing thoughts to make disorientation even worse.

Other Causes of Being Disoriented

Not all disorientation occurs during anxiety attacks. Some people feel disoriented when they wake up in the morning.

Because of the risks of disorientation and the rare health issues that can cause it, anyone experiencing that type of confusion without co-occurring anxiety symptoms should talk to a doctor. While it may still be caused by anxiety, it's often risky to leave that up to chance.

There are other reasons that someone may have this confusion. They include:

  • Defense Mechanism In cases of extreme anxiety and depression, some people experience a form of defense disorientation, where their mind simply doesn't want them to remember who they are or where they are to help them cope with stress.
  • Panic Awakenings Intense dreams and panicked awakenings are also common in those with anxiety, and these can cause you to feel incredibly disoriented until your mind wakes up to the real world.
  • Forgetfulness Memory loss is common in those that go through extremely stressful situations and have panic attacks. You may be simply forgetting things because you were so focused on your anxiety.

These are all problems that may affect those with anxiety disorders.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Disorientation

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is type of anxiety disorder that may also cause disorientation. With PTSD, the mind may be so on edge that people have flashbacks and hallucinations when their anxieties are triggered, and in some cases this can cause them to temporarily lose a bit of their grasp on the present and forget who they are or where they are. PTSD this severe often needs to be in the hands of a professional, to prevent anything from triggering those extreme levels of anxiety.

How to Overcome Disorientation

If anxiety is making you disoriented, it often means you're already in the midst of a severe anxiety attack. Once you're in that level of an attack, you simply need to wait until it's over. Disorientation is at its worst at the peak of the attack, and because you're disoriented, it's unlikely you'll be of the state of mind to try any techniques to reduce your anxiety in the moment.

But if you prevent anxiety, you prevent feeling disoriented. So start taking steps today to control your emotions and reduce the likelihood of reaching that level of anxiety is important.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

Ask Doctor a Question

Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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