Depersonalization and Derealization - What's the Difference?
If you look through depersonalization forums, one of the most common threads you’ll come across is the discussion over the differences between depersonalization and derealization.
Are these discrete symptoms?
Can they happen separately from one another?
Do they have to be treated separately too?
In order to discuss these feelings and symptoms properly, we have to define them:
1. Depersonalization is a feeling of disconnection from yourself.
You may feel as if you’re separated from your body, your senses etc. You may feel like a robot, as if your body isn’t your own, that you’re watching the movements of another person. You may also feel a separation from your memories, as if they're somehow not your own.
“I know I’m here, but I feel as if I’m not in my body. Like I’m watching it happen.”
2. Derealization is a feeling of disconnection from the world around you.
This can feel as if reality is a dream, a TV show, or that it’s fake and could cease to exist at any moment. It can feel like you're seeing the world from inside a glass bubble. The world can appear two-dimensional and unreal. You can feel a profound disconnection from the people around you, as if they're actors or robots. Colours and objects can look like they're flat or two-dimensional.
"I'm afraid that I'm cut off from reality... or even that reality itself is fake."
Most people who experience anxiety-driven dissociation typically report feeling one more than the other, but usually a mixture of both.
Both symptoms can be extremely distressing. And the nature of both, which cause the sufferer to experience doubts about the reality of their selves and the world around them, can lead to frightening and intrusive existential thoughts.
So -- what’s the difference?
Are they separate conditions / symptoms that need to be dealt with individually?
The short answer is: NO.
As somebody who experienced chronic anxiety-driven dissociation for two years, I can personally attest that I experienced a MIX of the above list of symptoms, as does virtually everyone who develops the condition.
In terms of the DP symptoms, I hardly recognized myself in the mirror and my body felt like it was belonged to someone else. Seeing photographs of myself was profoundly strange -- I knew that I was the person in the images, but I couldn’t connect to them emotionally. I also experienced persistent issues with my memory and concentration.
But I also had strong DR symptoms.
The world constantly felt strange and unreal, as if I was looking through a pane of glass all the time. And added into the mix, I had constant, terrifying existential thoughts about both myself and reality that were overwhelming to the point of being crippling.
So -- coming from somebody with extensive experience of both DP and DR:
Which was more important to address first?
Which was more persistent?
Which should you focus on more in order to speed your recovery?
The answer is NEITHER.
The entire argument about whether you have depersonalization or derealization is basically pointless. It’s like debating which is the more important flu symptom, the persistent cough or the running nose. You can argue about them all day, but it’s not going to help with your flu.
It doesn’t matter if you’re experiencing more DP or DR. They’re two sides of the same coin and they’re both caused by the same thing: ANXIETY.
Trying to break them down into separate conditions is purely a theoretical exercise, one that’s both driven by and aggravating of the underlying anxiety.
Think about it -- is there any possible clear delineation between feeling
a disconnection to yourself and
a disconnection to the world?
Of course not. This is a mental reaction to trauma, and simply isn’t divisible in the same way you can distinguish a broken arm from a broken leg.
Delving into it and attempting to make the diagnosis any more specific than it is, is picking at the scab when you should be allowing it to heal.
This is a condition that’s based on anxious thinking.
And constantly analyzing, delineating, defining it and arguing about it on forums -- will at best, cause it the condition to persist, and at worst, intensify it.
As the Wikipedia entry for Derealization says:
“Derealization is a subjective experience of unreality of the outside world, while depersonalization is sense of unreality in one's personal self, although most authors currently do not regard derealization (surroundings) and depersonalization (self) as separate constructs.”
And that’s the most important part. The idea of these conditions being separate is just that -- an idea. In practice, it’s just trying to place order on something that’s fundamentally intangible.
I don’t mean to suggest that there is no difference between these conditions. And in certain other circumstances, for example with cases of head trauma, it can be beneficial to distinguish between the two as part of recovery.
However, with anxiety-based conditions, the difference is irrelevant. Because when you address the underlying condition that’s causing it -- the anxiety -- both the DP and the DR will become less important, less noticeable, and eventually stop completely.
In one of my other articles I discuss how DP can seem like an almost insurmountable series of symptoms: anxious thoughts, feelings of unreality, muscle pain etc etc. But the key to recovery is realizing that you don’t have to deal with these symptoms one by one -- All you have to do is address the underlying anxiety and the symptoms will dissipate on their own. Focusing on the difference between DP and DR is just another version of this faulty thinking: it feels like something you need to delineate in order to progress.
In fact, the opposite is true: there is no amount of thinking on DP or DR - or the difference between them - that will help your recovery.
Spending time mentally interrogating DP and DR is a hamster-wheel of analysis that feeds the anxiety and causes panicked, existential thoughts. Believe me -- I did that for two years and there is no answer behind it, no logic that you’re going to uncover that will suddenly cause everything to make sense.
So the bottom line is that there is NO practical difference between DP and DR, and as counter intuitive as it seems, trying to define them through research and mental reasoning is a waste of time for the sufferer.
It's far more beneficial to focus the mind AWAY from the condition, as that's what will overwrite the anxious thought patterns that are causing the DP and DR in the first place.
Understanding that is the first step towards understanding how depersonalization works -- and how to recover.