The dreaded “Depersonalization”.
It’s one of the more mysterious of our anxiety symptoms.
The term depersonalization is often used interchangeably with another term, derealization, and the truth is that they are two different disorders with the main difference being that depersonalization symptoms are usually focused on how you feel, and with derealization the symptoms are more centered around how you perceive the world around you. However the line between the two is somewhat blurry and it sort of depends on each person’s perception of what they are experiencing, so when it comes to anxiety, quite frequently the term depersonalization is used to cover both disorders and that is the term I will use to refer to symptoms of both disorders throughout this post.
Not everybody with an anxiety disorder gets this particular symptom but for those who do, it can be a bit of a “mind-messer.” This is one of those symptoms that will alter your entire sense of being. It feels very strange and odd, and it’s quite hard to describe what it is like to somebody who hasn’t experienced it, but I will give it a try.
Imagine being in a room full of people, yet you feel disconnected from all of them, almost as if you are watching them on a TV screen. You feel almost light as air, as if you are made of helium.. almost like you would imagine a ghost would feel if he came back to Earth for a visit. You still look the same, and sound the same, and to everybody else in the room, you are exactly as you always are. But inside your mind, you feel completely different.
You feel as if you are not in the same reality that everybody else is in…like you are in a different dimension. And it can feel impossible to escape from. Sometimes it just lasts a few minutes….but I have had it last an entire day and I am sure there are others who have experienced it longer than that……maybe even all of the time. It feels odd and scary and weird and all you keep asking yourself is “Why do I feel this way?”
I never told anybody but my husband about my depersonalization (DP).
I didn’t want to tell anybody else. I thought they would think I was crazy. Heck, I thought I was crazy so why wouldn’t everybody else? My husband tried to be understanding, but since I still looked normal and acted normally, he just kind of listened and then forgot about it.
Every symptom of DP exists only in the mind of the person experiencing it. So it is a lonely, frustrating, scary thing to go through. And you feel trapped and at its mercy and as if you have no choice but to wait for it pass, and hope to God that it does.
But the truth is, that as scary and weird and reality altering as DP is, it is just a symptom of anxiety that is caused by the exact same things as ALL your other anxiety symptoms…mainly, too much introversion, hyperawareness, and too much over-thinking.
It is totally harmless, and it’s totally possible to get it under control if you consistently focus on staying out of your head, kicking self analysis to the curb, and improving your overall mental health/level of stress.
I haven’t had a DP experience in years. It’s hard for me to even put myself in that mindset and “feel” what it what was like, although I remember it was awful. It left once I became aware of how I was contributing to it, and then made sure not to continue those contributing thinking patterns and behaviors. You can get there too with a little knowledge, a little understanding of yourself, and a change in your way of thinking.
Most of us with anxiety disorders are introverts and over thinkers and deep thinkers.
These traits are a gift, but there can come a point in time for us when we spend SO much time in our heads, over analyzing and questioning and pondering and wondering about every tiny little thing we see, think and feel, that we kind of get stuck in that mindset. This can occur when we are in the middle of a bad anxiety cycle and feeling lots of “odd” symptoms going on that we spend too much time trying to “figure out”. Or this can also happen if we spend too much time cooped up alone at home, not engaging with other people.
A lot of people write to me about experiencing DP in relation to smoking marijuana. I believe this is because marijuana can tend to make you overthink and think deeply. And if you are already an over thinker to begin with, marijuana is going to really kick that into over-drive making DP more likely to happen. I support marijuana use but you have to know your own personality if you want to partake. It’s not for everybody, including me. I tried it once and had the worst DP experience of my life. Time seemed to stand still and it was terrifying. So now I stick to essential oil pens if I want to enhance my mood naturally and leave the marijuana for those who can handle it.
We over-thinkers spend so much time pre-occupied with our own thoughts and feelings, and so LITTLE time focused on external things going on in our world, that it alters our perception of the world a bit and we start viewing the world as an outsider looking in, instead of an actual participant. The “lens” that we view the world through is changed. But its okay because the good news is, that with a little time, we can change it right back.
Have you ever looked in the mirror so long that your face becomes distorted and you start to feel weird and odd and like you aren’t connected to that face?
Well THAT is depersonalization. It’s the exact same thing.
Normally when you look in the mirror, you are looking at it from an external point of view. You are brushing your teeth or doing your hair and your mind is on something else and you aren’t hyper-focused on that face in the mirror. But when you stare and stare at it for a few minutes, your focus shifts inward and you start seeing that face from a different perspective and you aren’t used to that and that is why you start to get a little freaked out by it.
-The same thing happens when a word starts to look like a nonsense word if you read it too many times or stare at it too long, even though you have seen that word a million times in your life.
-Or if you say a word too many times, it starts to sound like a gibberish word that isn’t real.
That doesn’t ever scare you or freak you out though does it? Why? Because you know that is normal and it happens to everybody.
Those are all examples of DP, just on a smaller scale. It is all the exact same thing.
DP is totally, completely harmless and doesn’t mean that you are sick or crazy or anything like that.
It is simply a very strange feeling sign that we are getting a little too comfortable in that little nest inside our heads. We are spending so much time in there that when we come out of there and its time to focus on something external…it can be an awkward transition.
Everybody experiences these transitions from their inner world to their outer world. People think about some issue, get “lost” in thought, and then somebody yells at them to come eat dinner and they are brought back out into the “real” world. It is a transition that is normally very smooth and completely unnoticed – just one of those things our minds and brains do when they are in “auto-pilot” mode which, by the way, is the mode that our brains are meant to be in most of the time and is disrupted by our over-thinking.
The reason that we get depersonalization symptoms and the average person doesn’t is because, again, we spend so much time in our head that a bit of a flip takes place and our external world stops being our “center” and our inner world becomes our center.
Basically speaking, we get used to life in the cave.
And from this point on, every time we leave our heads and go out into our “external” world, it seems off and glaringly odd. This makes sense of course, because we are now experiencing it through a very different perspective: the perspective of a visitor who is used to being someplace very different.
The hyper-awareness that comes with an anxiety disorder increases the likelihood of an introverted, over-thinking person developing depersonalization issues.
This hyper-awareness, caused by nervous exhaustion and too much adrenaline, causes us to zone in on the most minute of things being “off”, and it causes us to zero in on that inner/outer world perception shift and it makes it seem much more obvious then it normally is, and it feels abnormal. And as I am sure you know, those of us with anxiety don’t look at abnormal things in a “positive light”, so it becomes something we fear and worry about.
The final ingredient in the depersonalization process is the over thinking and analyzing of these strange new perceptions of our external environment. Why am I feeling this way? What is going on? Why do I feel so odd? What does it all mean? Those of us with anxiety aren’t ones to leave a bone un-chewed, and our subconscious simply can’t resist gnawing on this one. This over thinking takes us right back into our head and keeps this cycle of depersonalization going, and we end up spending a lot of our time feeling like observers of life, rather than participants IN life.
The way to put depersonalization symptoms behind you is to quit paying symptoms more attention than they deserve. Quit analyzing. Get your mind onto something healthy and positive.
So simplistic. So easy. Too easy, you might say.
But remember – simple and easy is the way out of an anxiety disorder. Complicated and over thought is the way IN to an anxiety disorder.
Once I figured all of this out, I did a couple of things.
First, I took it as a sign that I was clearly spending WAY too much time inside my head and I made an effort to do things that made me focus more on my external world and get out of my head. I stopped spending so much time alone…I got out of the house more….had more conversations with people and I found things to do that kept my mind occupied on something besides myself.
Those of us with anxiety are very self-centered people. Not in the conceited sense, but in the sense that we are literally very centered on ourselves and our own thoughts. We have to make a point to find ways to get our minds off of ourselves and the inner workings of our own minds, and onto somebody or something else.
We have to get out of our brain “nests”.
Find a hobby. Get into fitness or blogging. Get outdoors. Or spend time on word puzzles or other “brain games”. Develop more real world social connections. Find something to do to occupy your thoughts so you stay out of the mind cave! Find a passion!
Doing this was a huge help to me. I didn’t make myself become an “extrovert”. I am an introvert and I always will be. But just because I like to be in my head, that doesn’t mean I can allow myself to go down that long hall to the dark cave in the back of mind and stay in there and dwell on all the things that could go wrong or the “meaning of life”.
No. I have to stay in the front part of my mind…the sun porch in my head, where some sun can get in and things don’t turn toxic and my eyes don’t get too used to the “dark”. 😉
If I am going to be “introverting”, I make sure I do it in a healthy way.
The other thing I did, was to make a point to not dwell on my depersonalization symptoms when I did experience them.
I no longer really feared the symptoms once I figured out what was causing them and that was extremely helpful, but I also basically pretended I was not feeling the symptoms at all. I did my very best to not acknowledge them in any way. I also made sure to talk to people and touch things and observe things around me in the room that I was in. (It’s not always easy to not self-analyze but it can be done if you just focus on trying to find a different train of thought.)
Depersonalization is the result of an over-thinking overdose. Make it a point to stay OUT of your head as much as possible and gradually those symptoms of depersonalization should fade away.
My DP didn’t go away overnight. It probably took a few weeks before I was able to shift my focus out of the internal and into the external for good and not keep wading back in and out……but it did happen. After going through a period of time where I spent more time in my outer world than in my inner world, my outer world stopped feeling like a foreign place. I stopped feeling like a visitor and started feeling as though I belonged.
Don’t get discouraged if it takes you longer than a few weeks though. Some people have a harder time breaking the “mind cave” habit and have to struggle for a bit before they are able to make any headway (no pun intended 😉 ). That is totally normal. It can be tough because we are such naturally introverted, introspective people. But you CAN do it if you just work on retraining your thought patterns. Do not give up, no matter what.
Looking for more information on depersonalization? Here is a great article from Sound-Mind.Org.
If you are looking for some personalized attention regarding your anxiety issues, you can find more information on that here.
P. S. Please keep in mind here that I am only talking about anxiety related depersonalization and not depersonalization that is caused by an injury, trauma, or that co-exists with other mental disorders or illnesses, or is the side effect of a drug. I’m referring to strictly generalized anxiety-related DP here.
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I had this from overthinking looks like DR symptoms not dp.. i had DR symptoms it went away in few days, but dp symptoms have increased once i Googled them with more fear.did you have dp symptoms??. I am a bad overthinker as you
Hi I’ve just found this I’ve had non stop DP since June now, triggered from a weed panic attack. The way you explain it is so accurate to what I’m going through. I barely get out of bed most days but this helped me to feel less crazy. I guess I’m scared of my brain right now
Hi thanks for the post probably the most informative about it I’ve read yet.
I was working long hours and stressed all the time, I ended up getting panic attacks and I had a bout of DP and I freaked out. So it seems with mine once I overcome one thing in my anxiety like panic attacks erc something else comes along. Then I forget about that then something else comes along. I’m just trying to break the cycle. I know theres nothing medically wrong with me as I’ve been checked and of I have a couple of beers I feel fine.
This is a very common pattern with anxiety. Let the fact that it is so normal be a comfort to you. It is nothing more than a habitual pattern you have created for yourself, and resisting the urge to analyze your symptoms….whatever they are….is the simplest way to move toward recovery.
Hi. I’ve had DDD for a year and a half and frankly I’m desperate. I’ve been in psychiatric treatment for a year now and i haven’t seen any improvement whatsoever. Before that i was vigorously searching the internet for a physical cause. Naturally, the internet came up with ludicrous explenations, which i believed to be the cause. Everything from brain tumours to nasal polyps. And i would only want to talk about my newest theory. I was literally obsessed with finding an explenation. When i finally admitted ro myself it might be a mental illness, I was looking for a medication to solve my problems. I tried fluoxetine, abilify, seroquel fory disturbed sleep and escitalapram. But none except the seroquel worked. Hence my former psychiatrist suspected a premorbid psychosis. We changed psychiatrist shortly afterwards and i was emitted into hospital soon after that. That was six weeks ago. I still haven’t seen any improvements in my derealization symptoms. And I can’t live with that. I’ve already attempted suicide once. I’m scared i might try it again if it doesn’t get any better.
However, after reading this article, I’m determined to give it another try. My only worry is that I won’t be able to get out of the constant loop of worrying. Wish me luck. And just out of curiousity: how long does it take for it to go away?? 2 seconds, I hope. Anyway, thanks for reading.
With best regards, Meli
The more consistent you are with your efforts to de-stress your life and engage more with your external world, the sooner it will happen. You have to refuse to engage with your worrisome thoughts no matter how strong the pull is.
Your description of autopilot mode vs manual mode (inner vs outer world). A month ago I started trying to control my thoughts, and I think I basically made my inner world the default mode. Throughout the day I’m almost always super aware of what I’m thinking, never distracted or lost in thought. I’ve said a million times in the past month that it feels like my brain is on manual mode. And the transitions between autopilot and manual mode are incredibly frequent and very jarring, not smooth and unnoticeable at all. I should also mention that shortly after turning all my attention to my inner world, I got my first ever panic attack and I’ve had nervous illness symptoms for the past month. I don’t really feel super disconnected or anything like that, but life does feel a little dreamlike.
Does this sound like anxiety-related DP? Also, when distraction does not occur naturally, should I try and focus outwardly on what I’m doing?
Hi Gill, yes this does sound very much to me like anxiety related DP. And yes if you are experiencing DP and you are not finding that distraction occurs naturally, you should absolutely do it the “manual” way. Your brain has learned a new habit, and it needs to go back to the old way of doing things. It won’t do this unless you guide in, in that direction. Remember that you are always the pilot of what is going on in your head. ALWAYS.
Thank you for the article. I experience DP symptoms to some degree 24/7 following a panic attack (my first and only ever). I have very high anxiety now due to the constant DP state. Would you consider this anxiety related DP?
Not being a professional, I couldn’t say for sure. I can only tell you that if it were me personally in your situation, and I hadn’t experienced any significant trauma or injuries/illness of any kind, I would believe without a doubt that it was all anxiety related and I would put all my attention into slowing down my life and finding ways to stay out of my head. It is very tempting to want to analyze the symptoms of your DP and make sense of them and poke them with that stick we all carry around with us, but they have to be completely left alone if they are to subside. Kind of like keeping oxygen away from a fire. Our analyzing of any type of anxiety symptom is the oxygen that keeps the symptoms burning and growing.
I can completely relate to what you are saying. When I don’t pay attention to them, which is rare for me, I can barely notice the DP. However, I spent the fist 6 months of this analyzing every single second of it. Constantly looking for the DP, and letting it impact every single moment. It would be the first thing I thought in the morning and the last thing I thought of before bed. I have completely let it define me. I would spend hours every day searching forums and YouTube. I know this has been an incorrect way to approach it, and in hindsight I realize that it has hindered and slowed down any sort of recovery. As far as trauma goes. I did not have the best childhood, but nothing completely out of the ordinary. I have nothing that I would consider TRAUMA. No violence or assults of any kind. I have no head injuries to speak of. I have always been a anxious, negative thinker though.
Was your one panic attack marijuana related at all, if you don’t mind my asking?
Yes it was. However I have never had an issue with it before. I did have a lot,of health anxieties and other stress building up at the time. I guess it was “the straw” as they they say.
You seem to have a really good grasp of what is going on and that is going to take you a long way. Just keep listening to what your logical self is telling you and ignore that compulsive little voice that makes you want to start digging around. I know how hard it is to do that at first, but really, once you kind of stick with that mindset for 3-4 for days, the urges dramatically lessen. I have been where you are and given into every little pang of wanting to question and it becomes this sort of addictive cycle and you just have to throw yourself off the wheel because it takes you nowhere. You sound a lot like me…nothing major happened in my life..nothing horribly out of the ordinary..but I too have always been an anxious, negative thinker and after a while I realized how deep of a hole that left me standing in.
Thank you so much for your words of wisdom. When I had my panic attack, I had no idea what was happening, and when the DP set in right after, I thought I had permanently damaged by brain beyond repair. I was truly more frightened then I had ever been in my life. I then proceeded to “research” my symptoms and found DP. Then after reading the horror stories of people with years of constant DP, I thought I was doomed. However, I did notice a trend in EVERY single recovery story I had read. Acceptance, letting go, and DISTRACTION. Admittedly it has taken me a long time to even begin to implement these strategies, but I can without a doubt see that this is the way out. I NEED to get out of my head, and into the world. Reading your article and talking with you only solidifies that into my head. Thank you so much for your time and thought out responses to my questions.
You’re welcome and let me know if you need an ear with anything else on your mind. xoxo
I had a feeling it was. I only smoked marijuana once in my life, and after I did it, I had the worst panic attack of my entire life. Time stood still, lights flashed, I KNEW I was dying. I never did it again. But I don’t blame the marijuana itself, necessarily. I just think that marijuana is a drug or whatever you want to refer to it as, that makes people over think. And when you take a person who is very stressed out and mentally exhausted, as I was when I smoked it the one time, and you are already in a massive overthinking mode, and then you throw the marijuana on top of it…I just think it sort of tips you over the edge straight into panic. And then that panic attack can of course fill your world with MORE stress and more overthinking because you are wondering why it happened and what it means which causes more overthinking and more anxiety and worry and wondering if it will happen again, and all that introspection and stress and bewilderment can absolutely be enough to keep you in a depersonalized frame of mind. To me it makes perfect sense and I think its a very normal response.
After my marijuana induced panic, I was in a state over it for months, wondering and worrying and thinking it meant I was crazy. But now, looking back, I am like “It would have been a miracle for that NOT to have happened.”…that marijuana being gasoline to the little embers burning in my head. 🙂
I have Dissociative Identity Disorder, and what you’re describing sounds a lot like dissociation. Can you explain the difference? @joypaulinesmith
Hi Joy, I am not familiar with Dissociative Identity Disorder, so I couldn’t give you an answer to how the two are different.
First off, you hit every DP sensation dead on. It felt like you were telling this story from my perspective. I commented on Twitter that this is a very difficult sensation to explain to people, but I’m not sure anyone could have gotten any closer than you just did.
On a side note, and this may seem petty, but it is awesome to see your page views rising! Your message is so powerful and dead on, so it is great to see you getting the attention you deserve. Your attention to detail and your experience should be seen by many, and it seems like you are well on your way. Don’t stop!
Thank you so much! I appreciate that. I look at my anxiety disorder as being very similar to an obstacle course with its many different challenges every few months. I would get one symptom under control and then a new one would present itself to me, and DP was definitely not one of my favorites! And yes the page views are going up! It is a slow rise, that is for sure, but I get a few more views every month and I am glad for that. I appreciate the support you have given me and am glad to be living in the “blogging world” with you. 🙂