The ‘I Want To Disappear’ Feeling, Explained

A psychologist explains why people fantasize about escape, and what to do instead.
Psychology TikTok stress brain fight flight fawn freeze disappear run away escape response
The feeling is normal, but it doesn’t have to mean you’re helpless. Photo: Joshua Earle, Unsplash

“At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence,” wrote Jon Krakauer about Christopher McCandless in the book-turned-movie Into the Wild

In the true story, McCandless gave up his material belongings to hitchhike to Alaska and disappear into the wilderness. Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the wild, but it appears like many share the desire to leave it all behind. Social media is full of memes about people wanting to disappear without explanation. It’s not so much about going on vacation or dying, but about running away from often overwhelming and seemingly hopeless situations. 


But what does wanting to disappear actually mean, and what can people really do about it?

“It’s normal to fantasize about wanting to escape from time to time,” clinical psychologist Therese Mascardo told VICE. “The fantasy of escape is a common mechanism that superficially relieves some pressure for more difficult or complicated feelings.” 

Psychologists say that the human brain is wired to respond to stress in four basic ways—fight, freeze, fawn, or flight. The fight response involves aggressively facing perceived threats. The freeze response uses stillness to avoid danger, or renders people unable to act against it. The fawn response immediately seeks to please another person to avoid conflict. And the flight response runs away from the threatening situation altogether. 

That means that running away is simply one of the ways people can respond when life gets tough. “It’s basically hard-wired into our survival instincts,” said Mascardo. 

Often, the desire to run away happens when people feel overwhelmed by emotions and desire relief. According to Mascardo, this can be more prevalent today because there’s a lot going on in the world and plenty of people feel more isolated than ever. 


“When it comes to issues like the environment, or gun violence, or pandemics, or even the economy, many people feel powerless and hopeless, which lead to a sense of despair. I’ve seen it with my clients in the therapy room when they say things like ‘What’s the point if the world is going to end in 50 years due to global warming anyway?’” Mascardo said. 

Wanting to disappear, then, is often an indication that something in someone’s life is not OK, and needs care and attention.

People who say they want to disappear might really be saying: I feel alone and need love, I feel sad and need comfort or things that bring me joy, I feel shame and need to know that I’m an OK person, I’m tired and need rest, I feel overwhelmed and need a plan, or I feel lost and need a sense of purpose

“Ultimately, it’s a thought distortion that running away will solve all your problems, but it can feel momentarily comforting to imagine that you have the option to escape from them for a little while,” said Mascardo. 

Of course, few people can actually drop their lives and disappear for long, but Mascardo shared some tips for coping with the feeling. 

Get some space

In stressful situations, stepping away and getting some distance for a few moments can help reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed and helpless. This can be as simple as stepping away from your desk when work gets too stressful and taking a walk before replying to that next email.

Get some rest 

“Hustle culture tells us that rest is for the weak but the truth is that we need rest to thrive,” said Mascardo, adding that people need breaks from the pressure to be “on” and act like everything is OK. We need naps, vacations, and unstructured time when we aren’t expected to be productive. 

Practice mindfulness

According to Mascardo, mindfulness meditation is one of the most scientifically-supported and accessible practices that improve overall well-being. Those who don’t know where or how to start can turn to many resources online. One of the simplest ways to do this is to watch and count your breaths. 

Laugh and play

As a productivity and profits-obsessed culture, we've forgotten how to play and have fun, just for the sake of having fun,” Mascardo said. She suggested painting, singing, and laughing with friends as helpful methods to soothe anxiety.


The benefits of movement are not limited to weight loss or body modification. Mascardo said that some movements, like walking or dancing, are especially good at helping reduce stress. 

But she also said that another thing people can do in the face of wanting to disappear is to face the issue head-on.

“The most powerful thing people can do to ease the desire to run away is to address the root cause of their distress. In other words, identify and directly address the need, whether it’s a need for support, love, kindness, joy, rest, or a sense of purpose.” 

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