Many people in their lifetime will experience some kind of depersonalisation or derealisation, this may only be a brief and a mild form of the disorder, and you may not even realise that this is the name for what you experienced.
Depersonalisation and derealisation are types of dissociative disorders that affect the way the individual sees themselves and the world. They are linked with a number of different mental health problems and some people may experience them as a symptom of another diagnosis. Most commonly they are associated with anxiety and depression but can also be experienced by people suffering from eating disorders, PTSD, OCD and many more. Additionally, these feelings can be brought on from experiencing extreme stress or panic attacks, as the mind uses these symptoms as a coping mechanism, taking you mentally out of the distressing situation.
Depersonalisation and derealisation are the 3rd most common mental health symptom after anxiety and depression, and affects around 2% of the population. Some people may go through short periods of experiencing these symptoms, however others have them much longer, having to live with the condition for years and years of their life.
What is Depersonalisation?
Depersonalisation is when you feel like you are outside of your own body, observing your actions, feelings, thoughts and beliefs from a distance. Individuals feel detached from themselves, not in control of their actions and disconnected from their own body. Their feelings and thoughts do not belong to them but someone else and they may even be unable to recognise themselves when for example looking down at their hands or in a mirror.
People have stated then when experiencing depersonalisation they feel like an “outside observer” of their own body and mind, they can’t control their movements or speech, they see their body as distorted, feel numb to the world around them and believe their memories are not their own.
What is Derealisation?
Derealisation is the feeling that the world around you is not real. Whereas depersonalisation was a feeling of detachment from oneself, derealisation is a detachment from one’s surroundings. When experiencing derealisation it may feel like the world around you is foggy, dreamlike and visually distorted.
Individuals that have experienced derealisation describe it as feeling like they are living in a dream or in a film, they feel unfamiliar in their own surroundings and feel physically disconnected from their loved ones. Visually their surroundings are distorted by colour, shape and size and they had no perception of time. For example, things that happened recently feel like a distant memory and vice versa.
Like previously mentioned many people will experience depersonalisation or derealisation at some point in their life, maybe as a coping mechanism when feeling stressed or experiencing a panic attack. However when these feelings start to occur more frequently or never fully go away and start to disrupt your everyday life it is considered a mental health disorder.
Some people can live with depersonalisation or derealisation disorder and appear as ‘normal’ due to the fact that they have found coping mechanisms that work for them to live with their illness.
Who does it affect?
These symptoms can happen to anyone at any stage of their life and it is more likely to occur when you are experiencing short term anxiety or stress. Long term depersonalisation and derealisation has been found to be more common with people who have experienced severe trauma or have had long term experience with stress or anxiety.
What is important to remember is that when having these symptoms for a short time it is not considered dangerous for the individual or those around them. Often the symptoms of depersonalisation/derealisation are confused with being a sign of psychosis which is not the case. It is a way of your mind dealing with a stressful situation that you find yourself in and not something to fear.
Why does it happen?
It is not fully understood what actually causes these kinds of dissociative disorders to occur. Many believe that they may be related to previous trauma that the individual has gone through, such as abuse during childhood, effects of war, a kidnapping or an invasive medical treatment. It is not purely down to these kinds of experiences as anyone who has had long term stress or anxiety may also develop these symptoms.
Symptoms of depersonalisation and derealisation allow the individual to switch off from reality which is a normal reaction when faced with a hard, stressful and difficult time. The problem is when the person is no longer in a time of stress or trauma, yet still acts as if they are. Instead of dealing with their trauma they would rather stay disconnected in some way as it may be easier than facing it.
How to help
As many people will experience the sensation of depersonalisation or derealisation at some point in their life, initially it isn’t a cause for concern. It becomes a concern when these feelings of detachment from yourself and the world around occur for a prolonged period of time and become more and more severe. This may mean that you suffer from depersonalisation-derealisation disorder and may need to seek professional help.
The treatment for this disorder is mainly based around psychotherapy (talking therapy) as it is believed that to treat it as people need to change their beliefs and thought patterns, however some medications can be a good addition. Psychotherapy’s goal is for the individual to gain control of their symptoms so that they become less severe. It can help you understand why these feelings occur, learn coping techniques and strategies, address emotions that stem from past trauma and help with related disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Depersonalisation and Derealisation are feelings that many of us will experience and many people do live with, however it is a disorder that is not widely discussed. For more information or any questions, book a free support session with our trained peer support workers.