What Causes Depersonalization Disorder? - The 3 Most Common Triggers
What causes Depersonalization Disorder? In almost all cases, Depersonalization is caused by stress and trauma (barring a physical cause like a major head injury). The three most common triggers for this are:
1. Panic Attacks
2. Bad Drug Experiences
3. Accumulated Stresses
So why are these events triggers for Depersonalization Disorder?
Let's take a look at each one and find out.
1. Panic Attacks
Panic attacks are extremely common. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 people experience panic attacks and 1 in 3 will have one at some point in their lives.
They can hit you out of nowhere and when they do, your fight-or-flight system kick in. Your body prepares you for danger.
This causes a number of physical reactions: heart palpitations, tense muscles, dilated pupils. In evolutionary terms it’s a great system -- if you were being chased by a wild animal, this is exactly what you’d want your body to do!
And it also causes mental reactions. For example, racing thoughts are extremely common, and an inability to concentrate. And another common mental symptom is the feeling of Depersonalization.
The sense of being cut off from reality is extremely useful in life-or-death situations -- it numbs you to the imminent danger and allows you to remain calm. It’s like your brain’s ‘airbag’!
The problem arises when there is no actual danger around. There’s no wild animal chasing you, no fire, no nothing -- just this intense, unexplained fear.
But why does the feeling of DP sometimes continue after the panic attack is over, and turn into what we call Depersonalization Disorder? The explanation is simple.
What often happens with people getting panic attacks is that they focus on one specific symptom of the panic attack.
Take heart palpitations, for example. You feel your heart speeding up out of nowhere and you think ‘I must be having a heart attack!’
That’s why you hear of people checking themselves into hospitals, certain that they’re having a heart attack. The doctors examine them, tell them they’re in perfect physical health, and send them home. It happens all the time.
The exact same thing happens with Depersonalization. It’s a perfectly natural and recognized mental symptom of stress and trauma. 50% of all adults in the US will experience Depersonalization or Derealization at some point over the course of their lifetime.
But when you experience it as part of a panic attack, you can focus on it in the same way as others do with their heart palpitations.
Feelings of Unreality
The feelings of unreality are actually there to protect you -- but you focus on them specifically and think of them as a threat. You think ‘I must be going crazy!’
So here’s what happens: You have a panic attack, which causes anxiety. The anxiety causes depersonalization, which causes more anxiety, which causes more depersonalization, and so on.
It turns into a feedback loop. You might even end up going to the Emergency Room, just like the person with the supposed heart attack.
The difference is this: No matter how intense or scary heart palpitations are, they ultimately have to stop. Why? Because your heart is a muscle. It can only do so much pumping blood before it gets tired and starts to relax. It’s a temporary measure.
Mental Feedback Loop
But because DP and anxiety is a mental feedback loop, it can keep going long after the panic attack has ended. Why? Because you’re still checking in to see if that weird feeling is still there.
If you feel it at all that causes more anxiety -- which causes more DP…. which gets the feedback loop going all over again, maybe even leading to another panic attack.
That’s the reason I woke up the next morning after my first panic attack and still had the feelings of DP. It wasn’t because I had made any sort of permanent change in my brain.
But I was checking in constantly to see if the feeling of DP was there. This habit of ‘checking in’, fuelled by constant research, keeps the feedback loop going and can quickly turn into what we call Depersonalization Disorder.
2. Bad Drug Experiences
Drug-induced Depersonalization is becoming extremely common, due to the legalization of weed and edibles across the US and Canada. While there are many health benefits associated with marijuana, like all psychoactive drugs it there are risks associated with it.
The most typical situation is that somebody is smoking weed (or taking MDMA or LSD) for the first time and doesn’t know what to expect, or smokes a strain that is much stronger than they expected. You might have been expecting a mellow, relaxing experience, but are suddenly thrown into a full-on trip.
This can be terrifying -- You think you might be going crazy, that you’ll never get out of it. And depending on how much you’ve smoked / ingested, this can last for hours.
Bad drug experiences are often dismissed as being insignificant, but it’s important to emphasize just how traumatic the experience itself can be, especially for someone new to the drug.
But it’s very important to remember that it’s not the weed, or any other drug that actually causes ongoing feelings of Depersonalization. The weed can be the trigger, but it’s the trauma from the frightening experience that actually causes it.
It’s like a panic attack on steroids. Because of the mental effects while on weed (short term memory loss, inability to concentrate etc), the feelings of panic are both intensified and more introspective.
Flipped A Switch
And just like with a panic attack, this can start a feedback loop of anxiety and Depersonalization that can last long after you smoked the weed.
Even worse, the feelings of DP can make you worry that you’re still high, hours or days after smoking the weed. You might think that you’ve ‘broken’ or ‘flipped a switch’ in your brain and now you’re stuck like this forever.
Don’t worry -- once the drug is out of your system, it’s out of your system. The feelings of being ‘still high’ are just the feedback loop of anxiety and DP running on longer than it should.
3. Accumulated Stresses
Depersonalization doesn’t have to be caused by something as obvious as a panic attack or weed.
I often speak to people who have developed DP but can’t quite put their finger on what caused it. It may have developed over the course of a few days or weeks, with no obvious trigger.
Buildup of Stress
However, there has always been a buildup of stress beforehand -- be it from relationships, work, grief, emigrating etc. We often have a tendency to push our problems down, or accept intense feelings of stress and anxiety as being normal. (This is especially common in today’s stressful environment, with the stress of short-contract jobs, financial pressure, and global issues like climate change etc.)
But don’t underestimate the impact that a breakup, a divorce, a loved one passing away, work stresses can have.
These things can build up and cause intense stress and anxiety, causing the protective mechanism of Depersonalization to surface, without an obvious panic ‘event’ to cause it.
Each of these causes are pretty common. So you might ask -- If DP can be triggered by stresses, aren’t you always at risk of it making a comeback, even after you’ve recovered?
The answer is no. There’s a beautiful phrase in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that says ‘Anxiety is caused by the fear of anxiety.” And the same goes for DP.
Part of recovery is understanding that DP is nothing to be afraid of. It’s a symptom of anxiety. It's the mental version of heart palpitations or muscle tension or dilated pupils.
It’s your body’s and brain’s defence mechanism doing exactly what it’s supposed to do at times of anxiety and stress.
Just like heart palpitations, tense muscles, racing thoughts etc -- DP is a temporary measure your body uses to get you out of danger. That’s all!
But what causes Depersonalization Disorder, be it drugs, stress etc -- is ultimately not that important.
Because the only reason Depersonalization lasts longer than it should is that it gets stuck in a feedback loop with the anxiety that caused it in the first place.
That’s when we call it ‘Depersonalization Disorder’ (DPD).
But no matter how long you’ve had DPD, or what caused it, it’s still just a feedback loop. And all you need to do to end that feedback loop is stop the anxiety that’s causing it.
Once you do that, all of the symptoms of DP will fade away and stop completely, just like they’re supposed to do.