Ever feel like you or your environment isn’t real? That odd feeling, called depersonalization, isn’t rare. But frequent depersonalization can be disruptive.
If you’ve ever had a strange sensation your surroundings, or even your body, weren’t real, as though you were in a movie instead of real life, you likely experienced depersonalization.
While it may sound surprising, this phenomenon can be a normal process that happens now and then and doesn’t necessarily indicate any emotional or mental health problem, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
On the other hand, if depersonalization symptoms are frequent and even frightening, they can be life disrupting and need treatment.
What is depersonalization caused by?
If you’re wondering what depersonalization is, exactly, it describes a type of phenomenon mental health experts call “dissociation.” Dissociation describes feeling disconnected to your thoughts, actions, or even where you are physically located.
Examples of mild, common dissociation you may have experienced include feeling “lost” in a book or movie or daydreaming while staring out a window and forgetting you were supposed to be doing something else. In addition, many people who follow the same route to work daily for a long time sometimes have “highway hypnosis.” They obviously drive competently, arriving at their destination safely, yet they often don’t remember details of their drive.
These common experiences are usually brief and not worrisome. Dissociation, however, can be frequent and even life-disrupting and signal a disorder. There are three types of dissociative mental health disorders:
- Dissociative identity disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder, or MPD)
- Dissociative amnesia (totally blocking out memory of a usually traumatic event, like a rape)
- Depersonalization disorder, marked by feelings of unreality
Depersonalization disorder, also called depersonalization/derealization disorder, produces feelings you are estranged from yourself and, especially, from the external world. Your thoughts and experiences can feel dream-like and, for some people, provoke anxiety and worry.
What causes depersonalization symptoms?
It’s important to know that depersonalization symptoms don’t mean you necessarily have a mental health condition; about half of people have felt detached from themselves or their surroundings at one time or another.
Feelings of depersonalization can happen seemingly out of the blue but are more likely to be triggered by stress, including a divorce, financial woes, or a work crisis. Depersonalization is also sometimes precipitated by the use of illegal or recreational drugs, including marijuana and hallucinogens, the Merck Manual points out.
However, when depersonalization is severe or long-lasting, it is typically the result of extreme trauma such as:
- Emotional abuse or neglect during childhood
- Physical abuse
- Witnessing violence
- The sudden death of a loved one
Having a severely mentally ill mother or father
Bottom line: How to cope with worrisome depersonalization feelings
It’s a good idea to discuss any ongoing depersonalization symptoms with your doctor. Persistent depersonalization is sometimes seen in people suffering from depression, hypochondriasis, and other dissociative disorders, too, the American Psychological Association points out. Moreover, symptoms of depersonalization can be symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy and early schizophrenia, too. You may need a physical examination and sometimes psychological tests to rule out a seizure disorder or mental health problems.
If you are diagnosed with depersonalization disorder, psychotherapy and antianxiety drugs and antidepressants may be appropriate. Treatment, however, is only necessary if depersonalization symptoms cause disabling anxiety and depression.
For the majority of people who experience feelings of depersonalization, there’s good news: Depersonalization symptoms often disappear over time, on their own. And, even when the strange feelings persist, they can cause only minor distress if you concentrate on focusing on other activities and thoughts instead of zeroing in on your symptoms, according to Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel, MD.
July 27, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN