How Checking Out Hurts Us & What to Do Instead

We've all been there: You get home after a long day and you just want to decompress for a bit, so maybe you head to the fridge or the cabinet and grab a sugary snack and then plop down in front of the TV or computer and turn on a show so you can just check out for a bit.  Or maybe you're at work and feeling stressed or demotivated, so you pick up your phone and start scrolling through your Facebook or Instagram feed to distract yourself and check out for a while.  

The Desire to Check Out is Normal

First of all, let me say that the tendency to check out every now and then is completely normal and natural.  In some ways it can actually be a healthy response to a difficult situation.  It is our system's way of trying to self-regulate when things get difficult or uncomfortable.  If what we are facing might overwhelm our system, then a healthy response is to limit our exposure to the offending stimulus, and we do this oftentimes by finding a way to check out temporarily. 

In people who have experienced trauma, this can manifest as full-on dissociation, and is the nervous system's response to being overwhelmed.  But I also see it in smaller ways all the time with clients and in my own personal life as a response to uncomfortable situations, thoughts or emotions.  Oftentimes we don't even realize we're doing it until we're 3 episodes deep into our latest Netflix obsession, or have eaten the whole bag of chips, or lost an hour to scrolling our Facebook feed.  (Full disclosure: I've totally done all of those things at some point or another).  

What Checking Out Does To Our System

As I mentioned above, checking out can sometimes be helpful to keep our system from being overwhelmed. However, there are also downsides if it becomes a regular habit.  When we check out to avoid something that is uncomfortable, we are saving ourselves short-term discomfort.  But in the long term, we never actually deal with whatever is causing the discomfort.  Instead, we create a habit around avoiding it.  The more we do it, the more the avoidance pattern gets ingrained into our routine.  Over time the pattern of avoiding something by checking out crystallizes into habit.  

“First we form habits, then they form us. Conquer your bad habits or they will conquer you.” ― Rob Gilbert

Over time, these habits of avoidance can begin to dictate our lives.  We get so used to watching that TV show after work or going to the bar for that drink to decompress that even on a good day, we feel lost if we don't do it.  This can negatively impact our lives in all sorts of ways.  It can drive a wedge between us and those closest to us because we dedicate time to checking out when we get home instead of to connecting with them.  Or maybe we eat too many sugary foods or drink too much beer and it starts to affect our weight and health.  And then we want to avoid the issues that have been created by our bad habits... so the desire to check out increases.  It's a vicious cycle.  

Checking In: An Alternative To Checking Out

If you want to stop the cycle of checking out and avoiding your problems before they get too big, try checking in next time you're feeling uncomfortable instead of checking out.  

Each time you notice that you want to check out, numb out, or escape, take a moment to check in with yourself about what's actually happening inside first.  This could be as simple as bringing your awareness to your breath for a few moments to ground yourself, and asking  a few simple questions: 

  1. What am I trying to avoid feeling right now?
  2. What is the story I'm telling myself about it?
  3. What do I really need in this moment?

The answers might surprise you.  The more often you do this, the more information you will gather about what is and isn't working in your daily life, which you can then use to make changes so that you don't feel the urge to check out and avoid things so much.  

If you try this exercise and find that the answer is something that feels like it will overwhelm your system, then by all means, go ahead and check out.  But only after you've checked in first.  The trick is to titrate our exposure to difficult situations or emotions.  Check in and see what's going on, and then check out for a while to re-regulate your system.  Think of titration like dropping an Emergen-C packet into a hot cup of water a little at a time so it doesn't fizz over the top like it would if you dumped it all in at once.  

If some extra support with this would be helpful, then I'd be happy to talk with you about finding other ways to cope with whatever difficulties you are facing in a healthy and balanced way. 

For more information on how practicing mindfulness can help create balance in your life, check out the mindfulness page.  

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If your stress level is making you want to check out regularly, try my free guide for a list of strategies to help you relieve stress and regain balance and happiness in your life.