Depersonalization is a strange psychological phenomenon that may be poorly understood. It involves a disconnect from reality that’s often associated with out-of-body experiences. This disorder shares similarities with a psychotic disorder, but it’s not psychosis. It also comes from a natural function that serves as a defense mechanism. What is depersonalization, and when does it turn into a dissociative disorder? Learn more about depersonalization and what you can do to address the disorder.
What Is Depersonalization?
Depersonalization is a symptom of multiple psychological issues, including depersonalization/derealization disorder. It’s a common symptom of dissociative disorders involving detachment from reality.
Depersonalization involves detachment from oneself, a detached view of the self, or observing oneself from a distance. People with the disorder feel the world has changed and is less real, vague, dreamy, lacking in significance, or outside of reality. It may involve having the feeling of being on “autopilot” and not being able to express one’s individuality or sense of selfhood. It’s also common to describe depersonalization as an out-of-body experience.
Depersonalization can occur briefly as a normal psychological response to traumatic events. However, chronic depersonalization is a sign of a dissociative disorder like depersonalization/derealization disorder.
Depersonalization (DP) is a psychological phenomenon commonly associated with periods of stress or trauma. It’s characterized by feelings of being disconnected from reality, despite the awareness that the feeling isn’t real. DP is common, but it can sometimes develop into a disorder. A DP disorder is in a category of mental health issues called dissociative disorders, which are defined by feelings of disconnection from reality, emotional numbness, and out-of-body experiences.
Depersonalization refers to several symptoms that may be related to one another. Common symptoms may include:
- Feeling a barrier between you and reality, like looking through a window.
- Feeling like you are observing yourself in a situation.
- The sense that your body is distorted, like your arms or legs, are smaller, bigger, or blurred.
- Emotional or physical numbness.
- Feeling disconnected from your memories or that your memories aren’t yours.
Although these symptoms can be bizarre or frightening, people with depersonalization disorders are aware they aren’t real. Like panic disorders may be a misfiring of stress that causes fight or flight responses at inappropriate times, depersonalization disorders have a similar effect with dissociative symptoms.
DP disorders can also cause a feedback loop that’s caused by anxiety. A depersonalization episode can be a frightening experience. You may feel like you’re going crazy, which makes you feel anxious. That heightened anxiety can lead to stress that causes more dissociative symptoms, and the cycle repeats.
What Is Derealization?
Depersonalization concerns how you perceive yourself, your body, and your surroundings, whereas derealization concerns how you perceive the world. It may feel like you’re in a dream or simulation, the world seems distorted, and your vision is blurred.
Derealization may feel like viewing the world through a pane of glass or feeling separated from reality. Like depersonalization, derealization isn’t a delusion. While people with these symptoms feel disconnected from what is real, they know the difference between reality and what they perceive. Delusional thinking is a belief that what is unreal is actually real.
Is Depersonalization Psychosis?
Psychosis refers to a psychological state in which you are disconnected from reality. It may cause hallucinations or delusions. Someone with psychosis may hear or see something that seems real but isn’t there. They may hold beliefs and fears that seem real despite logic or evidence to the contrary. Because of this disconnection from reality, depersonalization sounds like it would fit in with psychotic symptoms, but there is one major distinction: awareness.
Depersonalization is not psychosis because someone who experiences symptoms of depersonalization is fully aware that their feelings are not real. Unfortunately, this awareness also makes depersonalization notoriously frightening. When you’re aware that you have a feeling that doesn’t line up with reality, you know that something isn’t right. This disconnection between logic and perception can be scary.
Is Depersonalization a Defense Mechanism?
Depersonalization is often misunderstood as a mental health issue on its own when it is often an indicator of some other problem like stress or trauma. Depersonalization may not be a disorder like depression or anxiety. Instead, it may be a natural defense mechanism built into your brain to protect you from trauma.
Like a runny nose is a symptom that’s caused by your body’s reaction to a cold, depersonalization is a symptom caused by your brain’s reaction to trauma. DP is also compared to an airbag in a car. While the explosion of the airbag may be painful and unpleasant, it protects you from a more dangerous impact against a harder surface.
Depersonalization often emerges during a period of stress or trauma. Your brain protects you from an overwhelmingly painful reality by removing you from it psychologically. You continue to function from a third-person perspective rather than being in the thick of a trying time. Again, unlike other dissociative problems, you can continue to tell the difference between reality and unreality, despite your disturbing feelings that there is a barrier between you and the real world.
Is Depersonalization Connected to Fight or Flight?
Depersonalization is thought to be connected to your body’s fight-or-flight response. Fight-or-flight is a function of your brain that prepares you to deal with danger or a potential threat. Many animals share this response with humans. Fight-or-flight has both physical and mental effects. Your thoughts get faster, anxiety increases your focus on the danger and decreases your ability to focus on other things, and your heart speeds up, sending blood to your fighting or running muscles. Those are just some of the many effects your body goes through when your hackles go up, and depersonalization may be one of these effects.
In fact, depersonalization may be a third route your body takes that’s uniquely human. In the animal world, danger causes animals to stand and fight, run away, or, in the cases of possums and fainting goats, freeze. But in the human world, there are situations in which none of those options are very good. When your boss yells at you for a mistake, though you may want to slug him or run away, those responses aren’t usually appropriate or beneficial to you.
In many of life’s stresses and traumas, the only way out is through. But sometimes it’s so much for you to put up with. That’s where depersonalization comes in. If there’s no fighting or fleeing your way out of trauma, your brain allows you to assume the role of an observer, putting a degree of separation between you and trauma.
How Common Is Depersonalization?
Depersonalization as a phenomenon is very common. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depersonalization occurs as a fleeting symptom in as many as 75% of people. For the most part, depersonalization only affects people momentarily as a response to trauma. When the trauma or stress that’s causing it dissipates, the depersonalization goes away. However, just 2% of people experience depersonalization as a disorder that lasts longer than a momentary response. Women are more likely than men to develop the disorder.
Depersonalization experiences become a disorder when they last longer than a momentary episode that’s associated with stress or trauma. If depersonalization continues to occur frequently or for a long time, it may start to negatively affect your life. If DP symptoms start to negatively affect your ability to function in your life, you may need to see a medical or clinical professional.
How Is Depersonalization Diagnosed and Treated?
To qualify as a depersonalization-derealization disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) outlines the following factors. First, you experience frequent and recurring episodes of unreality, detachment from reality, or being an outside observer of reality.
Second, you are still aware that these feelings of detachment from reality aren’t real, and you can still tell the difference between bizarre perceptions and the real world. Third, these symptoms cause distress that affects your life and ability to function socially, occupationally, and in other areas of your life. Fourth, your symptoms can’t be explained by substance use or misuse. Fifth, your symptoms can’t be better explained by another mental health issue.
In many cases, treating anxiety, stress, and traumas that feed depersonalization symptoms can alleviate them. DP is often a warning sign that there is some unresolved trauma or anxiety disorder that you’re dealing with. Speaking to a medical or clinical professional can help uncover these underlying issues. Trauma and anxiety disorders can be treated with psychotherapy, behavioral therapies, and medication.
Depersonalization Disorder Risk Factors
There are several risk factors that can increase your likelihood of developing depersonalization and derealization disorder. Stress often triggers symptoms of depersonalization and derealization.
Trauma is a major factor in this disorder. As a result of trauma, such symptoms can also develop over time, becoming a reflexive psychological response to threatening thoughts or experiences.
Dissociative symptoms like depersonalization and derealization can occur even without a clinical disorder. The presence of persistent, recurrent, or severe experiences is a sure sign of an underlying mental illness.
Depersonalization/derealization disorder is associated with several risk factors, including:
- Using recreational drugs: This can trigger severe episodes of depersonalization or derealization
- Severe stress: Financial, work-related, or severe relationship issues can trigger the condition.
- Certain personality traits: These might make you avoid or deny challenging situations that make it difficult to adapt.
- Severe trauma: It could occur as a child or as an adult, but it could stem from experiencing or witnessing abuse or a traumatic event.
- Depression or anxiety: Severe or prolonged anxiety, depression, or panic attacks put you at risk.
Depersonalization and Anxiety Disorders
Depersonalizations and other dissociative symptoms are common in people with anxiety and panic disorders. Since dissociation is a natural brain function that protects you from traumatic events, severe anxiety can cause you to experience depersonalization and derealization.
Moments of high anxiety and stress can cause dissociative symptoms to appear. They may also go away or occur less frequently when you aren’t experiencing anxiety. In such cases, learning to cope with anxiety symptoms will likely relieve depersonalization.
Does Depersonalization Go Away By Itself?
Depersonalization and derealization can occur as fleeting symptoms caused by trauma. In such cases, dissociative symptoms will occur and go away quickly without a doctor or clinician intervention. However, when dissociative symptoms come and go randomly or worsen over time, they may need to be addressed in a professional setting. Unlike other mental health issues, it is possible for depersonalization and derealization symptoms to go away on their own. However, if they persist or lower your quality of life, you should speak to a doctor or clinician. Depersonalization and derealization are symptoms that are often connected to past traumas. In many cases, resolving or learning to cope with trauma, triggers, and anxiety can help alleviate dissociative symptoms.