When Your Mind Goes Blank, Or You Can Only Think Slowly, In Social Situations
Many people struggle with their mind going blank when they're making conversation. For other their thoughts don't completely stop, but slow down to the point where they can't come up with things to say as quickly as they need to. They may be able to spit out a greeting, or exchange a few sentences of simple small talk, but after that they've got nothing. If someone asks them a question, they may only be able to reply with, "uh... ....I don't know..."
People who suffer from this problem can usually make conversation with their family or close friends, but blank out in situations that intimidate them. Some common examples are meeting new people, being put on the spot in a group, or talking to someone who's attractive or high-status.
Below are some ways to deal with your mind going blank. They're roughly ordered by suggestions you can use in the moment, to things you can do over the longer term to cut down how often the issue comes up.
Be comfortable telling people your mind has gone blank
When some people's minds go blank the problem snowballs because they get worried about the consequences of not having anything to say. They fear everyone will judge them harshly and it will be humiliating. That makes them more anxious and self-conscious, which locks up their thoughts even more.
In reality, if you tell people your mind went blank they usually won't care, and will often be happy to help you get back on track. If you state what happened in a casual tone which says it's no big deal, then no one will treat it as one. For example, "What kinds of things do you do for fun?", "... ... ...Ha ha, sorry, my mind went blank for a second. What did you ask?... What do I do for fun? Right. Well I've been into drawing lately..." You can teach yourself firsthand that nothing bad usually occurs when you blank out by pretending to have it happen to you during low-stakes conversations.
Use some calming techniques to reduce your anxiety
A big reason people's minds go blank is because they're anxious. Nervousness prevents your thoughts from flowing freely. Sometimes you'll be acutely aware of how scared and on edge you feel. At other times you won't feel nervous, but will be overcome by an inability to think or act, like you're being held back by an invisible force field.
If you can calm yourself down it should get your thinking rolling again. Here are some techniques you can try. I can't guarantee they'll work every time, but they often help. They're easier to use in group conversations, where if you're feeling on edge you can hang back and let the others talk. You won't always have time to use them while you're conversing one-on-one, but might be able to if the other person is speaking a lot.
- Focus your attention outside your mind. When we're anxious we often get caught up in our heads. Observe your surroundings instead. One way to do this is to pay attention to the physical objects around you (What color is everyone's shirt? How does the couch you're sitting on feel?). You can also try to really, really tune into to the conversation, rather than half-listening while you worry.
- Take a few deep, calming breaths. As long as you don't do it in an exaggerated way, no one should notice. This article goes into more detail about anxiety-reducing breathing techniques.
- Just give the anxiety time to fade on its own. Even if you don't use any techniques you'll often naturally start to feel more comfortable after a few minutes.
Prepare a few things to say ahead of time
If you have some pre-planned questions or statements, you can fall back on those if your mind is empty. For example, if your thoughts tend to freeze up when you meet people at parties, you could memorize a handful of standard getting-to-know-you questions like, "How do you know (the host)?", "How long have you lived in town?", or "What do you think of (thing in the news)?". If certain questions make you lock up you can rehearse quick answers to them.
I suggest only preparing a small number of canned questions or answers. If you try to remember too much then you're likely to get stuck trying to figure out which of your eighteen possible responses to use. Keep it simple so you can recall what you need quickly.
Learn some strategies for dealing with silences in conversations
If your mind goes blank in a one-on-one conversation it will lead to a silence. That may make you even more worried and clammed up, because now you feel like the interaction has gone off the rails and become awkward. You'll feel more secure if you know some ways to address any dead air. The biggest tactic is mental: If you keep your cool, maintain your outer poise, and don't treat the silence as a disaster, then it won't be one. You can simply come up with something else to say and move on. This article goes into more detail about the topic:
Examine your expectations and worries about what kinds of things you need to say in conversations
Sometimes people feel like their minds are blank, but if they looked closer they'd realize they are having thoughts. They're coming up with possible things to say, then quickly rejecting them for being too boring, generic, weird, random, or whatnot. People sometimes become paralyzed in conversations because they put pressure on themselves to only say amazingly witty and interesting, but also sensitive and appropriate, things. None of what they think of seems good enough, so they feel like they have nothing to say at all.
You can learn to get past this flavor of blank mindedness by getting in the habit of not filtering yourself so much. If something pops into your head, and it's not ridiculously strange or offensive, then just say it. Don't fret if it seems somewhat unoriginal or uninspired. At first it may feel hard to speak in such an off the cuff way, but it will get easier.
Some types of worries can hinder your ability to come up with things to talk about. For example, if someone asks you an innocent question, but you believe that many people are mean-spirited and want to find out your secrets to use them against you, then you're more likely to freeze up and not know how to respond.
Know some general strategies for making conversation
The conversation-focused suggestions above are particularly useful when your mind goes blank. If you're prone to not knowing to say, it may also be that your overall conversation skills could use some brushing up. There's a whole section of this site devoted to that. In particular, these two articles are about ways to come up with things to say:
Find ways to keep your social energy up
Some people are more prone to thinking slowly or having their minds go blank if their social energy is depleted. If you've got an event coming up, and know your social fuel tank is limited, you can take steps to keep your energy from running out. For example, if you tend to get drained when you hang out with several friends in the evening, you might plan to have a nap beforehand, and bit of caffeine a couple of hours in. If you've already blanked out once, and know your low energy was partially to blame, you could try to recover some of it. This article has several suggestions about how to do that:
Work to reduce your social anxiety on the whole
If you can gradually become more comfortable with the social situations that make you anxious then your mind will be less likely to go blank during them. That's a big topic, so I can't cover it here. This large section of the site has several articles on dealing with shyness, social anxiety, and insecurities.
Get more practice with the situations where your mind tends to go blank
If you're less experienced at any skill then you can't take in as much "input", and it takes longer to figure out what to do with it. If way too much information hits you at once your mind may get overwhelmed and seize up. (If you play video games you've probably had this happen if you tried the highest difficulty on one before you were ready.)
As you get more practice you'll be able to think on your feet more quickly. You can automatically handle sub-tasks you used to have to stop and decide what to do about. If you tend to blank out in a social situation you haven't had much experience with, putting in more hours should help. For example, you may be fine making polite conversation with your family, but feel at a loss for words around your co-workers who have a more teasing, bantering style. Once you've had time to get a sense of how their conversation style works, and experimented with different ways of responding to their humor, you should be able to hold you own.