Depersonalization: Existential Thoughts (And How To Stop Them!)
One of the most disturbing aspects of Depersonalization / Derealization is the existential thoughts that come with it.
I hear about these scary, intrusive thoughts from DPDR sufferers all the time. Here are some of the most common:
Am I Dead?
Am I in Purgatory?
Am I going crazy?
I feel like I'm not real
It feels like I'm living in a dream and I can't wake up
I forget who I am….
My voice doesn't sound like my own
How do I stop thinking about Depersonalization?
Back when I had Depersonalization / Derealization, existential thoughts like this were constant part of my daily life. I was convinced at various points that I was dead, in purgatory, that I was a ghost, that I had been possessed, etc etc. It was absolutely terrifying.
And with Depersonalization, existential thoughts about things *outside* yourself are also quite intrusive and very common. For example:
Looking at people and thinking, ‘How do human beings exist?’
Looking at animals like dogs and cats and thinking ‘How do these creatures exist?’
Scientific topics like, say, the vastness of space and simulation theory can suddenly seem very scary
Books and films with philosophical angles like ‘The Matrix’ seem very frightening
Developing fears of everyday objects and activities like mirrors and driving your car
For sufferers of Depersonalization, existential thoughts like these can hit you like a ton of bricks, hundreds of times a day.
And they never seem to get easier. Back when I had DPDR, I remember that I had a physical reaction every time I had one of these intrusive thoughts. My stomach would sink, my muscles would tighten.
Over time, these thoughts started to turn into their own phobias. I became particularly scared of the bathroom, because looking into the mirror terrified me.
At one point I was scared of going outside because things like clouds and trees would scare me. I became scared of driving. I became scared of going to the cinema.
I was absolutely terrified of getting onto a plane ever again, after I had a horrible anxiety experience while abroad.
I knew that something was very wrong, but I didn't know how to stop DPDR or any of the bizarre thoughts and fears that were consuming me.
Because with Depersonalization, existential thoughts like these really do take over your life. You start to become terrified that you’ve somehow flicked a switch in your brain and you’ll never be able to stop thinking like this.
You look at the people around you jealously, wishing that you were able to go about your day as easily at them.
You become convinced that you’re about to go crazy, that your mind is being pushed so hard that it *must* be on the verge of breaking and just going crazy.
You worry that everyone is looking at you, that everyone can see that you’re so scared, that you’re ruining everyone’s time. Sometimes you might even catch a glimpse of yourself in a shop window and be shocked at just how outwardly normal you look!
This is such a massive, overwhelming change in your thinking, and it’s hard to comprehend.
Such a frightening, destructive pattern of thinking couldn’t possibly have a simple explanation, could it?
Well, guess what -- It does! So let's break this down into 3 simple steps and find out exactly why these thoughts are happening:
1. The Feelings Of Depersonalization
So firstly, let's get this out of the way: We know what Depersonalization is.
Feelings of being separated from your body and surroundings are medically acknowledged as part of your body and brain’s natural response to intense stress and anxiety.
In the same way that anxiety produces physical responses like tense muscles, increased heartrate etc, it also produces mental effects like Depersonalization.
It’s super common, it’s nothing to be afraid of and for most people it passes in a few minutes. But sometimes, it can turn into a feedback loop with the anxiety that’s causing it, and last longer than it’s supposed to.
So even though your brain is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing, the feelings are still pretty weird! Feeling like you’re in a dream, like you’re not real -- are pretty bizarre sensations!
2. Racing Thoughts
One of the other most common mental symptoms associated with DPD, or any anxiety-based condition, is racing thoughts.
This is when your mind is jumping from one thought to another, finding it hard to focus.
Again -- this is a perfectly natural response to stress and trauma. Having your thoughts race is super useful in dangerous situations, like if you were getting chased through the forest by a wild animal.
Not so much though when you’re sitting with your friends, enjoying a smoke!
3. Your Rational Mind
Here’s the thing about DP: There’s nothing actually wrong with you.
With Depersonalization, existential thoughts are just another symptom of the anxiety, in the same way that heart palpitations or muscle tension are.
You’re not hallucinating, you’re not going crazy, or anything remotely like that. Your reality testing remains intact at all times, no matter how scary the feelings get.
But you're feeling cut off from the world around you, and your thoughts are racing constantly.
Your rational mind, which is perfectly fine, is frantically trying to make sense of these bizarre feelings and racing thoughts:
WHY do you feel like you’re in danger?
WHY do you feel like you’re cut off from reality?
WHY do you feel like you’re stuck in a dream?
WHY do you feel like you’re still high and you can’t come down?
WHY are you struggling to keep anything in your short term memory?
There has to be an explanation, right?
Your rational mind is certainly demanding one!
And when your body and brain is in an anxious state, it tends to jump to the worst, scariest conclusions. It's called 'catastrophizing'.
So you jump to explanations like:
You’re in danger because there’s an unseen monster or force after you.
You feel cut off from reality because you’re dead or dreaming.
You feel stuck in a dream because you’re in purgatory or a coma
You still feel high because you smoked so much that you flipped a switch in your brain and now you’re stuck like this forever.
Your short term memory must be damaged for good.
Now, are any of these scenarios actually possible? Of course not.
And here’s the trick: You already know that they’re not possible -- and THAT’S why they’re so frightening.
Your rational mind knows full well that these intrusive thoughts don’t make a scratch of sense.
And that’s exactly why it finds them so frightening. It knows that you shouldn’t be having thoughts about the nature of the universe while you’re trying, say, to eat a quiet meal with friends!
But here’s the good news: You don’t have to deal with all of these intrusive thoughts separately.
Why? Because the thoughts themselves aren’t important.
They’re being caused by the feelings of DP and the racing thoughts -- which are both common symptoms of anxiety. That's all!
So what do you need to do?
Reduce and stop the anxiety that's causing them.
That's how to stop Depersonalization and the intrusive thoughts that come with it.
When you reduce and stop the anxiety that's causing these symptoms, the DP and racing thoughts will both fade away and stop as if they had never been there.
Let me explain how with a quick example:
I recently received an email from a young Depersonalization sufferer who told me that he’d been trying a strategy of facing each of his fears and anxious thoughts, one by one.
So one week, he would attempt to address his (depersonalization and anxiety induced) fear of attending school. The next week he'd address the fear of 'going crazy' that had been stuck in his head.
And the next week, he would address his fear of driving. It would take a long time, but he figured that he'd eventually get through every last one of these frightening thoughts.
The problem was that for each one of these intrusive and existential thoughts that he addressed, another would always pop up.
Suddenly, he'd have developed a new, irrational fear of, say, walking his dog. Or going to pick up groceries at his local supermarket.
He was very frightened -- "What's the point of trying to recover from any fear if there's always going to be a fresh one around the corner?"
I explained to him that he had nothing to be worried about, and the 'new' fears would stop immediately once he changed how he approached the problem.
Depersonalization can seem like it's 1,000 different thoughts and fears that each need to be addressed, one by one. But in reality, the very opposite is the truth.
The strange thoughts, the fears, the racing thoughts, the DPDR itself -- are all driven by one thing: ANXIETY.
Addressing each of these thoughts and fears separately can seem useful.
You might think that with enough time, you might even get through all of them.
But Depersonalization recovery simply doesn't work like that!
Because if you think of recovery from Depersonalization as a project with dozens / hundreds or thousands of fears to be addressed, you are making it into a massive, complicated task that needs to be updated constantly.
With this mindset, you're devoting huge amounts of mental energy to the condition, almost putting your life on hold while you deal with these fears.
And as any professional with experience in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy or Exposure Therapy will tell you, that will not help with your recovery.
In fact, it's totally counterproductive to recovery from any anxiety-spectrum condition (that only stop when you stop thinking about it!)
It's scratching an itch when you should be letting it heal!
The key in how to stop Depersonalization is realizing that DPDR is a perfectly normal defence mechanism (caused by weed, trauma etc) that your brain just hasn't switched off yet.
That's what's at the core of it and that's all you need to address.
DPDR is NOT is 1000 different intrusive and existential thoughts that you need to address individually.
Don't get me wrong, I understand that it can feel overwhelming. I suffered from chronic Depersonalization / Derealization for two years myself and I know exactly how difficult it can be.
With the racing thoughts and heightened physical awareness, DPDR can seem like a daunting, even overwhelming prospect.
I remember thinking when I first got the condition that I couldn't possibly process so much fear every day. There was just too much to bear.
But that's just a frightened interpretation of what is actually a simple, understandable and 100% anxiety-driven condition.
When you think of it like that, it's a lot more easy to manage and eliminate completely.
The DPDR you're feeling is nothing to be afraid of. It's your body's natural reaction to stress and trauma.
It's trying to help you escape from it thinks is an ongoing dangerous or traumatic situation. It's like a fire alarm that won't switch off!
All you need to do is turn off the fire alarm, and you brain's stressed-out reactions will stop too.
And that's the first and most important step towards your total recovery from Depersonalization and Derealization!