A First Look at Depersonalization and Derealization
A First Look at Depersonalization and Derealization
It was hard, at first, for me to do the research for this paper. Taking a close look at depersonalization and derealization, instances of disassociation, was surprisingly difficult to deal with. As someone who deals with anxiety on a day to day basis, depersonalization and derealization are no strangers to me, but I think my familiarity with the feelings and sensations of DP/DR made it all the more difficult to read about them extensively. After one long weekend of dealing with intensified symptoms of anxiety, I was able to begin my research anew. The following is what I have amassed from my readings and from my own observations of depersonalization and derealization and, as we noted in class, this accumulation of information is subject to “the Crack,” my own experiences, temperament, and behavioral patterns that make me the person I am. Purely objective it is not but, when you think about it, what observations ever are?
It is first and perhaps most important to explain what derealization and depersonalization is, what it feels like. It is also rather difficult to put such experiences into words.
Most concisely, derealization is described as a change in an individual’s experience of the world around them making it feel unreal and unfamiliar.
While that might help us define DR in the context of this paper, it does not really let the reader know what it feels like. Derealization is best explained as a dream-like state, where nothing feels real, as though everything is an illusion. For all the observer knows, they may wake up at any moment; an intangible, swimmy quality lays over everything like a veil, making everything unfamiliar, much like the same feeling that persists in a dream (4).
Depersonalization is a little bit harder to pin down. While most people can understand “dream-like” and “unreal,” (since most people have had a dream before), not everyone has experienced depersonalization.
The basic explanation is thus: “a change in an individuals self-awareness such that they feel detached from their own experience, with the self, the body and mind seeming alien” (1). That is, feeling as though you are no longer part of your body; that your mind and body are separated. You are only an observer of your actions.
Imagine that you are a balloon tethered to the top of your body’s head. You can look down and see yourself, you can control your limbs, walk, interact with people and things in your environment… but at the same time, your consciousness rests above your body. It is like viewing a movie where you are the star role. This is a clumsy explanation, but perhaps some other perspectives will help clarify. Individuals have described their depersonalization events as: “unreal, disembodied, divorced from oneself, apart from everything, unattached, alone, strange, weird, foreign, unfamiliar, dead, puppet-like, robot-like, acting a part, 'like a lifeless, two dimensional, 'cardboard' figure', made of cotton-wool, having mechanical actions, remote, automated, a spectator, witnessing ones own actions as if in a film or on a TV program, not doing ones own thinking, observing the flow of ideas in the mind as independent” (1).
It is important to note, however, that while individuals experiencing depersonalization and derealization feel disconnected from reality, they are aware of reality—what is real and what is not—they are aware that while they feel like things are not real, like they are apart from their body, that everything is as it should be (3). They pose no risk to society, as their grasp on reality remains stable at all times.
It should be noted that while occasional, passing feelings of DP/DR are normal, frequent or reoccurring feelings of this kind may be indicative of underlying mood or seizure disorders. Just because one may have experienced DP or DR, (or both), at some point in their life does not mean that they suffer from anxiety, depression, a seizure disorder or any other syndrome associated with stress or panic (4).
There are many different theories about why people experience DP/DR, the most severe cases related to PTSD and traumatic events; the idea is that the mind is trying to protect itself from extreme stress—by distancing itself from the body and the environment, it is taking an extreme approach to self-preservation. But not all cases of DP/DR are that severe, where the individual loses touch with who they are, where they are, what things are. There are those who experience mild to moderate DP/DR with episodic or regular frequency, even if they have never experienced any kind of traumatic event in their lifetime. However, DP/DR is always connected to anxiety disorders of varying severity, and only individuals experiencing the most frequent and continuous episodes are diagnosed with a full-blown Depersonalization Disorder.
The causes of DP/DR are not well understood, but are believed to be closely linked to changes in the balance of certain neurotransmitters (2). Feelings of depersonalization can be triggered by use of drugs, use of alcohol, or other medical conditions, including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
Depersonalization and derealization rarely stand alone as a separate disorder, thus treatment is not usually directed at the DP/DR but at the underlying disorders that cause those symptoms, like major depressive disorder and anxiety and panic disorders. Treatment is usually talk or cognitive behavioral therapy, targeting the stress or anxiety that is leading to DP/DR, as well as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications if the individual is dealing with either depression, anxiety, or both in conjunction (4).
Recovery is possible for many individuals who suffer from DP/DR, mostly by targeting the underlying conditions that illicit such symptoms, linked to the anxiety and stress controlling parts of the brain. In many cases, after treatment, individuals can completely recover.
There is not a lot of work on depersonalization or derealization out there, especially on a stand-alone basis. But experiences of this nature have been going on for a long time and I hope to, in the future, amend this webpaper to include a better history of disassociation, depersonalization, and derealization in the Western world.