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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