Depersonalization- What is It?

depersonalizationPanic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder have a wide variety of signs and symptoms. Perhaps one of the most distressing symptoms, at least for me, is depersonalization.

Depersonalization (or derealization) is a feeling of unreality that can be extremely frightening. This was the first symptom of anxiety that I experienced as a child.

I feel as though I am removed from my surroundings and yet I am still there. It feels as though I am looking out from the back of a tube or tunnel.  It feels very detached from real life.  As a child this was terrifying and I would call out to my family, “Help, I’m not here!”

Depersonalization is a malfunction or anomaly of the mechanism by which an individual has self awareness. It is a feeling of watching oneself act, while having no control over a situation. It [sic] usually refers to the severe form found in anxiety and, in the most intense cases, panic attacks. Sufferers feel they have changed, and the world has become less real, vague, dreamlike, or lacking in significance. It can be a disturbing experience, since many feel that, indeed, they are living in a “dream”.

Individuals who experience depersonalization feel divorced from their own personal physicality by sensing their body sensations, feelings, emotions and behaviors as not belonging to the same person or identity. Often a person who has experienced depersonalization claims that life “feels like a movie” or things seem unreal or hazy. Also, a recognition of self breaks down (hence the name). Depersonalization can result in very high anxiety levels, which further increase these perceptions.

When can depersonalization happen?

Depersonalization can happen during an anxiety triggering event or even hours later. As a seven year old, my stressor was my  school, but my feelings of unreality would happen in the evening while watching TV with my family. Since home was my safe place, it made the feelings and sensations all the more disturbing.

In my experience over the years, I have found that most doctors are not familiar with depersonalization.  I think this is sad, and only makes it harder for sufferers to find a professional who really understands them.  This was certainly the case with me.

Tips for depersonalization:

1. Do NOT smoke pot or take hallucinogens.  These and other drugs make the feelings worse.

2. Avoid over drinking alcohol.  The hangover can bring on extreme feelings of unreality.

3. Keep a journal.  Write about your experiences and how long the feelings lasted. Writing about stressful past experiences can be cathartic and decrease your episodes of depersonalization.

4. Pray or meditate. Prayer and meditation grounds you and helps you feel connected to your God, higher power, or whatever it is that you pray to.

5. Get some sunshine. I recommend taking a walk outside, or doing a half hour of gardening.  There’s something so grounding about being close to nature and the natural light is healing and restorative.

6. Know that while disturbing, depersonalization or feelings of derealizaton cannot in any way harm you. Use this knowledge to your advantage. Know that you can walk, talk, eat and function while feeling this way. In fact, the less tuned in you are to the sensations, the faster it goes away.

In closing I’m happy to report that while I still get depersonalization from time to time, I’m not too startled anymore when it happens. It just gets old after years and years. This calm acceptance on my part has probably helped me more than anything 😉

Have you ever felt depersonalization or feelings of unreality? What helped you? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share so we can help each other.

I wish you peace,
Jill G.

Are you tired of feeling anxious all the time? Ready to take action with an effective anxiety elimination program? I recommend and use the Anxiety Self Help Road Map. Please get started today and reclaim your life from fear.

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9 Responses to Depersonalization- What is It?

  1. Mental Health says:

    There is a social network for those with depersonalization/derealization you can visit:

  2. Karen Watson says:

    great tips here! thanks!

  3. Michelle says:

    This is usually what happens to me when i have an all out panic attack.. Ive discoveredd, however that i cam control it by closing my eyes(altho the teahers probably think im crazy wheni do this in the middle of class), and listening to music.. It cAlms me, and yet at the ssame time, it brings me back to the realization that im not dreaming, and im still here. Im happy to hear that im not alone on this one!

  4. Joni says:

    This symptom was one of my biggest obstacles. It never failed to send me into a panic. I finally realized it really is part of breathing. As anxiety sufferers, we don’t breath right – we chest breath, or we hold our breaths. I am a breath holder. I have learned that when this symptom comes on board to immediately start to focus on belly breathing and acceptance. Before I know it, it’s gone….or I’m functioning fine while having it. Still working with this one, but it doesn’t terrify me like it used to. One day at a time! Thanks for this blog – you’re awesome!


    • JillG says:

      Good girl Joni,

      You are so right, anxious people pant without even knowing it. This messes up the carbon dioxide- oxygen balance and can cause all kinds of weird scary symptoms. I have to work on this still from time to time. I think depersonalization is probably the scariest symptom there is. And yes, it is one day at a time. Onwards and upwards, you are doing great! 🙂

  5. person says:

    I never had a panic attack but I have been feeling as if nothing is real and nothing at all truly matters. Is this still classified as depersonalization?

    • JillG says:

      It would be difficult to say based on not knowing you and having this small tidbit of information about you. If you are very, very frightened when you get this feeling and it is interfering with your life, then I would suspect that anxiety is the underlying cause and therefore it may be depersonalization. If it is more of a melancholy/sadness/despair maybe it is depression. I hope you will get checked by a doctor so that you can identify what this issue is and then take steps to get past it. Good luck!

  6. Karen says:

    Thank you Jill. This is an amazing site. I feel like I’m reading my life story through your blog.
    As far as depersonalization, I will often look around and wonder if I am actually dead-died in car accident, and that I’m just dreaming that I’m alive. I then have to do my breathing exercises or tap on this sensation. Tapping for me really really helps!

    Thanks again for this forum!

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