Depersonalization is a state of mind that can make you feel alienated from real life, as if you’re living in a dream or a movie. It’s often the result of stress, trauma, depression, or anxiety. Working to recognize and relieve these triggers can help.
When I experienced depersonalization for the first time, a thick sensation of unreality steamrolled into my life — a dizzying, dream-like “nothing feels real” type of haze.
The more I obsessed over this bizarre feeling, the worse it got.
So, I turned to Google. After searching countless variations of “everything feels weird,” I landed on the answer: Depersonalization.
Although episodes of depersonalization can feel like a rollercoaster ride for one, those who have experienced it have lots of company. Up to 75% of people experience depersonalization at least once in their lifetime, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In psychology speak, American Psychological Association (APA) defines depersonalization as “a state of mind in which the self appears unreal. Individuals feel estranged from themselves and usually from the external world, and thoughts and experiences have a distant, dreamlike character.”
Some report feeling like they’re living in a dream or movie, alienated from what once felt familiar. Others feel like they’re an outside observer of their thoughts or body, stuck in a disconnected state of autopilot.
A quick PSA: Depersonalization isn’t the same thing as psychosis. It’s quite the opposite, actually.
People experiencing depersonalization are fully aware that the distorted sensations and freaky feelings aren’t real, which is what makes it so damn scary.
The intensity varies from person to person, situation to situation.
For me, it was like someone flipped on a “make literally everything weird as hell” switch. Mundane things suddenly seemed painfully obtuse.
I felt out of it all the time — like I was perceptually drunk but with a sober mind.
“Depersonalization is a symptom, not an indication that something is wrong with you,” says Shari Botwin, LCSW, a licensed therapist with years of experience working with clients who have experienced depersonalization.
Mind-boggling as it might be, there’s a clear physiological explanation for depersonalization. And if you’re anything like me, once you understand it, you’ll likely feel some relief.
When we experience anxiety or enter a state of “fight or flight,” our blood flow slows down. Blood is redirected to our extremities — arms and legs, rather than our heads — which can cause depersonalization’s light-headed, “out of body” feeling.
Managing or reducing your anxiety is the key to quieting this discomforting sensation.
I won’t sugarcoat it. Dealing with depersonalization is no walk in the park. But with the right understanding and support, you can and will feel like yourself again. The steps below are a good place to start.
“The first step to coping with depersonalization is naming it and recognizing that it’s happening,” says Botwin.
Putting your experience into words legitimizes how you’re feeling and “talking with loved ones and describing your experience will make you feel less alone,” explains Botwin.
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This can, in turn, decrease your overall stress level and create space for more positive emotions to take effect.
Believe it or not, the best way to fast track to “feeling normal” is to do “normal” things. I know, I know. It’s the most “are you kidding me?” advice to hear, but I swear it’s legit.
If you stay inside all day isolated and obsessing over strange sensations or existential thoughts, you’re dumping gasoline onto an already raging fire. Trust me on this one.
Some of my anxious days were like, “OK, this is just annoying now, and I want it to stop,” whereas others were more “code-red-level-3000-panic about every weird sensation.” Things got worse when I had too much time to think.
Get your rest but keep moving forward. Every moment is a new opportunity to start fresh.
“Developing awareness about how you experience this symptom will help you plant your feet on the ground and get you back into your body,” explains Botwin.
Even if it feels like you’re mentally gliding through the Matrix, moving your body with intention can help reduce anxiety and bring your mind back to the here and now.
You might try the following:
- Walk to the mailbox and back or take a long stroll through a nearby park.
- Hold an ice cube in your hand or glide it across your body.
- Jog in place or do a few jumping jacks.
- Take inventory of what’s around you by writing down five things you can see, hear, and feel.
It may feel impossible at first, but with practice, mindful movement can become an incredible tool to self-soothe.
On and off over the years, my anxiety has mimicked a shitty game of Whac-A-Mole, popping up seemingly at random. Until I learned what was setting it off, that is.
My therapist always says, “anxiety is information.” So, it should be no surprise that figuring out the root cause of your anxiety can help you stop it in its tracks.
We might not be able to prevent every little anxious feeling for the rest of our days, but we can change how we respond to it.
“Heightened states of fear and stress can trigger depersonalization as a response,” explains Botwin. “Talk to yourself and say things like: ‘I am okay. My body and mind are reacting to a feeling from an earlier event, but all is well at this moment.'”
It’s the epitome of “easier said than done,” but with time, wholly doable. I’ve learned to tell myself “damn, there I go again. This is uncomfortable, but it will pass.”
I still have tough days, but I have far more trust in myself that things will truly be okay.
Amid my toughest days, getting the reassurance that I was truly okay and healthy was everything in my healing journey.
It’s a long game, doing the investigative work to peel back the layers around why you’re so damn anxious, but more often than not, a successful one.
“Remind yourself that depersonalization is a common symptom, especially for people with a history of trauma or anxiety,” says Botwin. “Developing coping strategies that work for you can make a difference.”
Episodes of anxiety and depersonalization are a way for your body to sound the alarm that something isn’t quite working. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed about a big life change, for example, or noticing misalignment in a close relationship.
Learning to listen to your body will serve you well in the long run. Chip away at the source of depersonalization — anxiety — and you’ll squash it for good. You’ve got this.
Sarah Lempa is a writer and entrepreneur as the founder of Dang Fine Creative, a digital content agency. In her writing, she covers travel, mental health, business, sex and relationships, along with whatever else is currently inspiring. Her words have appeared in Business Insider, VICE, HuffPost, Lonely Planet, and more. While originally from the Chicago area, she’s called multiple countries home and has ventured across six continents along the way. When she’s not chipping away at a piece, you’ll find her jamming out to groovy beats or riding a motorcycle. Keep up with Sarah on Instagram.