Over the years I have worked with a large number of people that come to me terrified of a singular experience that occurs during moments of extreme anxiety; feelings of unreality and detachment from self that some fear even talking about.
Depersonalization is a frightening experience that accompanies high anxiety or a panic attack. Below are some of the accounts I’ve encountered in my practice of this enigmatic experience:
“I felt as though my reflection in the mirror was definitely me, but it somehow also wasn’t me. I knew intellectually that it was my reflection, but I just didn’t feel like it was. I don’t know, it was so weird and scary. I thought I was going to lose my mind.”
“Sometimes I get this fuzzy feeling like I’m not quite there, and my body feels detached from me. I look at my hands and I feel like saying “Who’s hands are these?’”
“I was having a panic attack. I looked at a photograph of my extended family and I started freaking out because these people were my family and yet they looked unfamiliar to me. I mean I knew who they were, I was just totally detached from them. When I felt this I just started freaking out even more. I thought I was going crazy and would just stay trapped in this feeling.”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m an automaton walking through this world. I don’t feel my body, I just exist somehow. I feel hollow like I have no weight. I feel totally ungrounded.”
What is Depersonalization?
So let us first break down just exactly what Depersonalization is. It can include the following symptoms and sensations:
- A sense that you are not real
- A sense that your body parts do not belong to you
- Feeling as if you are in a dream
- Feeling detached from self or surroundings
- Feeling as though things are fuzzy, hazy or foggy
- Feeling as though you are half in and half out of yourself
- Feeling as though you are a robot with no control over your own actions
- Feeling as if you are in a movie playing a part
Depersonalization is on the dissociation continuum and accompanies extreme anxiety. While depersonalization is a feeling of unreality of SELF, Derealization is the feeling of unreality of the world outside of self. Often the two can happen simultaneously as part of a panic attack.
Why does Depersonalization happen? When the body and mind are under extreme duress the brain tries to protect the individual by shutting off in some way. When a person dissociates completely, they will not remember what is happening to them. The brain does this to protect the person from the horror or physical pain being inflicted upon them. In sense they leave their body, or “black out” in order to avoid experiencing the painful situation. Depersonalization is the same idea except much less extreme. The person is still in their body, but sort of half in half out. This is what causes that hazy, dreamy feeling that accompanies it.
Depersonalization can be part of a Dissociative Disorder such as Dissociative Identity Disorder, or it can be part of an anxiety Disorder such as PTSD and Panic Disorder.
It might be difficult to grasp the possibility that such a reality altering experience can actually be a harmless response to anxiety. People who experience Depersonalization might feel like this is the beginning of Schizophrenia and actual psychosis, and have a deep fear that their experience is the doorway into “madness” or “insanity”. Depersonalization can be distinguished from actual psychosis because in depersonalization reality testing is still intact. The individual still knows what is actually going on in reality. Delusions and hallucinations are absent.
Many people experience episodes of Depersonalization/Derealization. These episodes can last weeks. This is a rare occurrence but it does happen, and is part of an anxiety disorder. Fear of the experience itself leads to elevated anxiety levels which further perpetuate depersonalization. In this way the person becomes involved in a vicious cycle of anxiety and depersonalization. The best way to break out of this cycle is to get to know what the experience of depersonalization means, and that it is not dangerous.
Once you demystify the feelings of unreality, they start to become less frightening. Decrease the fear and you will decrease Derealization/Depersonalization. Maintain the fear and the feelings will linger or come back. The formula is simple.
It is always a good idea to seek professional services if you are not able to get the feelings under control yourself. A trained therapist, preferably a seasoned anxiety specialist, will be able to tell you if what you are experiencing is Depresonalization or Derealization, if it is linked to anxiety and recommend appropriate treatments. Treament will usually involve Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for anxiety and panic attacks, and should help significantly.