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Derealization & Depersonalization: What Is This Horror? Can It Go Away?

What is depersonalization

Scary things seemingly loom around every corner when you’re struggling with a mood or anxiety disorder, and I’ve experienced most all of them. But, by far, the super-scariest of them all were derealization and depersonalization. Keyword in that last sentence, “were.” Let’s learn, and chill…

…especially when you consider that something that feels so horribly frightening, and holds the potential to cause such major dysfunction, may actually be the mind’s naturally intended way of protecting itself.

The kid was nine-years-old. To this day he remembers exactly where he was when his first derealization episode hit, as well as its trigger. All he knew to do was run to somewhere that made sense – the bathroom. Actually, he could have run for miles and miles.

I was the kid, and dealt with it often over the years – until it all went away.

Derealization and depersonalization (DR/DP) are horrifying. And the more we learn and share about them, the less impact they’ll have. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll up and leave.

Eight years ago, I ran a three-part series on DR/DP here on Chipur. Given their damaging power, and the lack of available quality information, I’ve decided to condense those three pieces into one for quick reading and reference.

And it’s so important to have the info “above the fold” for new readers who haven’t checked-out the archives.

What Are Derealization & Depersonalization?

Yes, I’ve experienced both DR and DP, frequently over the years. But let’s get this on the record. I’m working on sixty-four years on the planet and haven’t wrestled with either in decades.

Derealization is a disturbing sensation of unreality and detachment from your immediate world. It’s as though you’re operating in an exclusive dimension, and when it presents you become extremely concerned about what to do and how to find help. See, it’s all about the fear of being and appearing, well, out of your mind.

Just as derealization is an external perceptual issue, depersonalization is an equally disturbing self-perception phenomenon. During my junior year in college, I’ll never forget walking into the house a bunch of us guys rented and looking at a photo taken of us at a party. There was this guy in the back row, center, who looked really familiar. I mean, I knew who he was, but didn’t. Yep, it was me.

Now, I have always considered DR and DP to be symptoms – manifestations of and reactions to – assorted disorders, as opposed to independent diagnoses.

The DSM-5 recognizes depersonalization/derealization disorder, a dissociative disorder; however, it seems to describe recurrent or persistent, and especially life-interrupting, episodes – those manifestations of assorted disorders.

It’s thought that up to a 5% lifetime DR/DP prevalence exists, spiking to 30-70% at the time of a traumatic event.

What Causes Derealization and Depersonalization?

Was I abused as a childWell, if you’re hoping for rock-solid DR/DP causes, you’re barking-up the wrong tree. Remember, these are emotional/mental situations, and God forbid science provides us with some answers (instead of leaving us with “genetic and environmental factors” and “…aren’t well understood.”)

Generally speaking, if you’re having episodes of DR or DP, they’re most often manifestations of or reactions to…

  • Personality traits or disorders that generate avoidance and denial of difficult situations or make it hard to adapt
  • Severe trauma, including experiencing or witnessing an event or abuse. Of course, during childhood is always of note
  • Severe stress
  • Sleep disorders, bipolarity, depression or anxiety, particularly severe or persistent depression and anxiety with panic attacks
  • Neurological issues such as epilepsy, occipital-temporal lobe dysfunction, migraines, mild head injury
  • Vestibular disorders such as labyrinthitis
  • Drugs of abuse and withdrawal

Keep in mind, those are triggers, if you will. As to the actual anatomical and physiological goings-on, we just don’t have the space to go there.

Now, as a past sufferer of DR/DP, I have my own take on the cause of an episode. For my money, DR and DP, intense perceptual alterations, are the mind’s self-protective reaction to the ultimate perceived state of overload.

I mean, it seems to me that when the mind believes it’s mega-overwhelmed it flips the switch on a perceptual filter, believing even the slightest additional bit of stimuli may lead to various degrees of psychic meltdown.

I might also suggest that derealization and depersonalization may present as a result of the mind being so consumed by its present overload, it simply can’t deliver perceptual accuracy in response to what the senses are bringing to the table.

Yes, it’s the mind in a powerful state of defense. Within this context, it’s trying to give itself a fighting chance to sort and process that with which it’s already wrestling. So it chooses to inhibit the sensory messages streaming in from one’s immediate internal and external experience.

I find all of this really very fascinating, especially when you consider that something that feels so horribly frightening, and holds the potential to cause such major dysfunction, may actually be the mind’s naturally intended way of protecting itself.

Indeed, the mind may be saying, “I’ve got a bit more than I can handle here – could someone please help me out?” To me, assigning a personality, if you will, to the mind gives its generated distressing phenomena a bit of softness and gentleness – making them seem much less catastrophic.

Okay, one final take from world-renowned neurologist, Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, who addresses DR/DP in his book, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers.

Ramachandran proposes that in the midst of an emotionally void and hypervigilant state, we have but two alternatives to somehow account for what’s happened: “The world just isn’t real,” presenting in the form of derealization, and “I’m not real,” presenting in the form of depersonalization.”

Time to Move On

Derealization and depersonalization: absolute horror. Take it from me, I know. But like any other symptom a mood or anxiety disorder sufferer may deal with, the more we learn about it, the greater the chances it hits the road.

And I can tell you from personal experience that can definitely happen. Got it?

Hey, before we part company. You likely noticed I didn’t include anything about managing DR and DP. If you check-out the original three-part series you’ll find some good info. Including the series, there are five previously posted derealization/depersonalization pieces here on Chipur. Just type derealization in the search box and you’ll see them all.

And if you’d like to check-out all of the Chipur titles, here ya’ go.