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What is the Thousand-Yard Stare?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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One of the most famous pictures to grace the cover of the magazine National Geographic was printed in the mid 1980s and is of an Afghan girl with green eyes, exhibiting a stare that appears to look right past the camera, into some unknown and bleak future. The lack of emotion, and the look in the eyes that seems to see far away into the distance is called the thousand-yard stare, and it is a noted phenomenon of those people who have experienced tremendous stress and difficulty. It is often thought a harbinger or precursor to post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), and other people view it as a symptom of acute stress disorder. It’s frequently associated with soldiers presently or recently in combat, and the term, initially coined as the two thousand yard stare, was descriptive of pictures of World War II marines, that appeared in Life magazine.

From a medical standpoint, the thousand-yard stare represents that a person has experienced such significant trauma that they have had to dissociate or disconnect from the world or from other people. By going numb, by not feeling, they may still be functional in their environment. This is true of many people, like members of the armed forces, who are still in the midst of combat or traumatic situations. Given time away from these situations, some people might begin to come back to reality without assistance, but many more may need help fully re-engaging in life and ending dissociation. While they have this look, they may be diagnosed with having acute stress disorder or shock. The stare may also be indicative of PTSD already occurring, and anyone with either of these conditions is best treated with psychological support.

With the thousand-yard stare may come a variety of other symptoms of conditions like PTSD. These could include reliving trauma, sleep disturbances, tendency toward substance abuse, erratic moods, panic or anxiety attacks, and others. It can take a while for someone who has this look to lose it. It should be noted that the thousand-yard stare is certainly not unique to soldiers. Anyone experiencing significant trauma from incidences like violent attack, natural disaster, constant danger or phenomenal loss may begin to manifest acute stress disorder or PTSD.

For the purposes of diagnosis, the thousand-yard stare may be useful in assessing those who have suffered great trauma. It may say the degree to which the person is “tuning out” or dissociating from reality. It’s also relatively easy for medical laypeople to recognize, which may be of help in getting people interventional support and care, should they require it.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By Phaedrus — On Nov 09, 2014

@Inaventu- I can't speak for everyone who suffers from PTSD, but I can tell you from my own experience that someone with a thousand yard stare can still sense what's going on around him or her in the real world, but their brain has chosen to ignore it. The times I've gone into an emotional blackout and stared into space were like taking a vacation from reality. What scared me is the feeling I might not make it back from that "vacation".

By Inaventu — On Nov 09, 2014

I remember seeing those WWII photos with captions about the two thousand yard stare. I can see why some people might want to disconnect from life if they had to shoot people for a living or if they witnessed something horrible, like a murder or a plane crash. I've never experienced anything that traumatic in my own life, though. I've seen other people get a thousand yard stare, and I wonder sometimes where their minds actually go when they seem to blank out. Do they still have some idea of what's going on around them?

By Reminiscence — On Nov 08, 2014

I worked with a guy who would get a thousand yard stare every once in a while. He would just stop whatever he was doing and just look off into space, like he was daydreaming. He'd stay perfectly still for at least two or three minutes, then start blinking and snap out of it. It used to scare the rest of us, because we couldn't tell if he was going to come back to normal or start tearing the place up. It happened more often when he was stressed out from the workload.

He told me one time that he knew the thousand yard stare bothered a lot of people, but it was something he couldn't really control. He was in the army during the last days of the Vietnam conflict, and he developed PTSD while assigned to graves registration detail. He said the blank stare would happen a lot more often before he started taking the right medication for it.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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