Depersonalization Definition - What Is It?
Depersonalization is a feeling of being disconnected from your body and thoughts. It can feel like you're looking at yourself from outside your body or living in a dream. It can make you feel like you're a robot, that people around you are robots. The world may feel like it's flat and in 2D. It's also very common to feel like you're going crazy.
Feelings of Depersonalization usually last for just a few minutes before fading away. Sometimes they can persist for longer, which is known as Depersonalization Disorder (DPD).
Depersonalization Disorder is one of a group of conditions called Dissociative Disorders. However it's important to note that Depersonalization is very different from other Dissociative Disorders like Fugue States, Dissociative Identity Disorder etc. Those are considered to be much more serious.
What Causes Depersonalization?
The exact triggers for the feelings of Depersonalization aren't known, but in the vast majority of cases it's caused by stress and trauma.
This can be something like a car accident, abuse, violence, a panic attack, or as is becoming more common, a bad experience on drugs like weed and LSD. The brain 'withdraws' and 'numbs' itself to protect itself from the traumatic situation.
This is the reason why people often don't react properly to trauma until some time after the event. For most people these feelings are very brief and fade away. For some, especially when they interpret the feelings as 'going crazy', it causes intense anxiety, which makes the feeling of Depersonalization worse.
It's also the reason why people often confuse feelings of Depersonalization and Derealization with so-called 'weed hangovers' that feel like they last for days or weeks.
Regardless of what triggered it, this feedback loop can turn into the persistent condition known as Depersonalization Disorder (DPD).
Why Does Depersonalization Happen To Some People And Not Others?
Currently there is no exact way to predict Depersonalization Disorder. In the same way that some people are more like to get depression or panic attacks, it seems that some people are more susceptible to Depersonalization than others. But some of the risk factors include:
- Drug Use - Drugs like LSD and especially, stronger strains of weed can trigger episodes of Depersonalization and Derealization.
- Being Introspective - People who tend to be critical and self-examine tend to be at higher risk of developing Depersonalization.
- Anxiety, Stress and Depression - These can all cause feelings of Depersonalization to persist
- Trauma - Being part of or witnessing violence, abuse, an accident. Also, if you experienced abuse as a child you may be more susceptible to Depersonalization as an adult.
- Panic Attacks - The intense anxiety of a panic attack can cause feelings of Depersonalization.
When Does Depersonalization Become Depersonalization Disorder?
Brief episodes of Depersonalization and Derealization are extremely common, caused by anxiety or trauma and usually fade away in a few minutes. Sometimes, the person focuses on the feelings of unreality and worries that they're a separate issue (going crazy, living in a dream).
This can be quite frightening and generates more anxiety, which prevents the DP from fading away as it normally does. (This is particularly common with bad drug experiences, since it can already be tied in with the fear that you're 'going crazy'.)
Instead it turns into a cycle of anxiety and Depersonalization that can last for days, weeks, months. This is when the definition changes from Depersonalization to Depersonalization Disorder (DPD).
How Long Does Depersonalization Last?
For most people, Depersonalization lasts a few seconds or minutes. It can last for the duration of a panic attack, which can be up to 30 minutes or more. Typically it fades away as the anxiety or panic attack subsides and your attention is moved away from the feelings of unreality.
However, when the 'unreal' feelings of DP are focused on and misconstrued as a feeling of 'going crazy', this can cause an anxiety / Depersonalization feedback loop. This can last for months and years, or as long as it's allowed to. Typically when the feedback loop is stopped, the DP subsides in a few weeks.
This question is explored in depth in this article.
What Are The Symptoms?
The symptoms of Depersonalization include:
Feeling like you're cut off from reality
There's a pane of glass between between you and the world
You’re not in control of your thoughts or actions
You don’t recognise yourself in the mirror
You’re on autopilot all the time
You feel like you’re underwater
You feel as if time is distorted or fragmented
Feel like you’re living in a bubble
Feeling like you’re living in a movie or TV show about your own life
Feeling like you’re living in a dream
Feeling like you’re slightly drunk all the time
Feeling like your vision is somehow off
Feeling like you’re a robot without emotions
Feeling like people around you are robots
Thinking 'I don't feel real'
Wondering 'Am I going crazy?'
Feeling afraid when looking in the mirror
Not being able to recognise yourself in the mirror
Feeling like you’re trapped in your head
Feeling like an alien inside your own head
Feeling like you’re watching yourself from outside your body
Feeling like you’re the only person who has ever gone through this
You’re thinking existential thoughts, about the nature of reality and the universe
Floaters / Visual Snow
The World Looks Flat and 2D
Static / Fuzzy Vision
My vision is foggy / distorted
Things appear to move slightly
Things just look ‘strange’
Feeling that the shape and size of objects are distorted
Not being able to connect with your memories
Feeling that your memories are not your own
Difficulty concentrating on simple tasks
Forgetting what you were doing
Forgetting what you were saying
Fear that you’re going insane
Fear that reality is slipping away
Fear that you're not in control of yourself or thinking 'I feel like a robot without emotions'
Fear that you don’t really exist
Fear that you have died or are in purgatory
Fear that you have brain damage
Fear that you have developed schizophrenia or psychosis
Fear that you’re going to fade away or disappear
Fear of social settings like school and work
Fear of brightly lit places like malls and supermarkets
One of the clearest indicators of Depersonalization Disorder is a recent trigger incident.
Have you recently:
1. Had a bad experience on Weed / Hash
2. Taken any psychotropic drug (MDMA / Ketamine / LSD)
3. Had a Panic Attack
4. Been involved in a car crash, house fire or similar traumatic incident
5. Been mugged / attacked or witnessed violence
How Common Is Depersonalization?
Depersonalization is one of the most commonly experienced psychiatric symptoms. Up to 75% of people will experience at least one Depersonalization / Derealization episode at some point in their lives and it's estimated that 1 in 50 people have Depersonalization Disorder. For 2 years I was one of those people.
Can Depersonalization Make You Go Crazy?
No, it will not make you go crazy. The Depersonalization definition is that it's a symptom of anxiety. It won't cause psychosis. The feelings of unreality can be very frightening, but at all times your reality testing remains intact. This means that you know the difference between your internal thoughts and the external world. More info is available here.
Can Depersonalization Lead To Anything Worse?
No, Depersonalization won't lead to anything worse. It's completely different from organic brain diseases like schizophrenia, cancer or dementia. It may cause sleep loss and concentration issues but those are side effects of all anxiety conditions.
Can You Recover From Depersonalization Disorder?
Yes, you can recover from Depersonalization Disorder. By definition it's not permanent, it's not a standalone condition and even in its chronic form, it's still just a symptom of anxiety. In the same way that anxiety is manageable and can be recovered from completely, the same goes for Depersonalization.