Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder: What To Expect, Symptoms, And Treatment
By: Sarah Fader
Updated February 11, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Kay Adkins, LPC
Content Warning: Please be advised, this article mentions the topic of prescription medication. The information found in the article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have. In addition, this article mentions trauma-related topics, including abuse and neglect, which could potentially be triggering.
Have you ever experienced the feeling of being disconnected from yourself or your surroundings? If so, it may have felt overwhelming or even frightening.
There are times when it is normal to experience the sense of being disconnected or “in a daze.” Fatigue, illness, medication side effects and alcohol (even in small amounts) can cause these feelings. In some cases, however, symptoms of being detached or disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings can indicate the presence of a psychological condition known as a dissociative disorder.
Dissociative disorders are mental disorders that cause an affected individual to experience a disconnection from their thoughts, surroundings, memories, actions, and/or identity. The escape from reality that is characteristic of dissociative disorders is involuntary. Dissociative disorders can lead to difficulty functioning in everyday situations.
What Causes Dissociative Disorders?
Dissociative disorders usually develop as a person’s way of coping with a trauma. Although the symptoms of a dissociative disorder may occur for the first time after childhood, they most often occur in individuals who were exposed as children to long-term abuse or repeated trauma.
Because personal identity is generally formed during childhood, children find it easier to disconnect from reality. If left untreated, a child who develops a dissociative disorder may continue to use the same coping mechanisms in response to stressful situations later in life.
Types of Dissociative Disorders
There are three primary categories of dissociative disorders: dissociative identity disorder, dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization-derealization disorder.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative identity disorder, once referred to as multiple personality disorder, is generally believed to be the result of abuse, neglect, or other ongoing traumatic experiences that occurred during childhood. An estimated 90 percent of people with dissociative identity disorder are thought to have experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse or lived in conditions of extreme neglect.
Dissociative identity disorder is characterized by the existence of two or more distinct personalities or identities experienced by one individual. Each identity, or alter, has its own characteristic behaviors, preferences, memories, attitudes, and style that are observable by others. A person with dissociative identity disorder may shift from one identity another when triggered by some sort of stress. The shift is generally sudden and involuntary.
When one has dissociative identity disorder, they may experience difficulty concentrating and gaps in memory. Because of the instability of their behavior, they may experience problems at work or school. They often experience problems with interpersonal relationships and may have a variety of additional symptoms ranging from mild to severe.
Dissociative amnesia refers to the inability to recall information related to past events. Like other types of dissociation, dissociative amnesia is usually caused by a stressful or traumatic event. The onset of symptoms can occur suddenly, and they may last from just a few minutes to several months or years. Episodes may occur sporadically throughout an affected person’s life.
People with dissociative amnesia may experience amnesia that is localized (involving a specific event or period of time), selective (involving specific aspects of personal history or identity), or generalized (involving a complete loss of life history or identity).
This type of dissociative disorder involves the existence of depersonalization, derealization, or both persistently or repeatedly over time.
Depersonalization means feeling detached from one’s body or disconnected from one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
In addition, a person with depersonalization disorder may experience:
- Feeling as though they are an audience to their thoughts, experiences, and feelings, as if someone else is living their life;
- Feeling mechanical, automated, and robotic, sometimes to the point of feeling like they aren't in control of their own actions;
- Disturbance in self-perception (this may be confusion about one’s personality or physical state of being);
- Emotional numbness;
- Detachment from and lack of emotion associated with memories, which may cause them to question whether those memories are real or even their own.
Derealization involves feelings of not living in reality or being disconnected from one’s surroundings. People and things that would otherwise seem familiar may be perceived as imaginary. A person with derealization disorder may describe feeling as though they are watching their life as if in a movie rather than living it directly.
Symptoms may start in early childhood, but the average age of onset is 16 years old. An individual with derealization disorder may experience:
- Feeling like they’re living in a movie;
- Disconnection from others, especially emotionally;
- Perceiving their surroundings as blurry or unreal; alternatively, some people report that they feel like all their senses are heightened and they are extremely aware of where they are;
- An impaired sense of time, such as feeling like recent events, conversations, or experiences happened in the distant past;
- A sense of “going crazy.”
Causes and Risk Factors
Depersonalization and derealization are symptoms of several mental illnesses, which can make it difficult to pinpoint their exact cause. However, there is often a correlation between depersonalization-derealization disorder and trauma. Individuals who have encountered neglect or abuse, be it physical, sexual, or emotional, are at higher risk of developing either depersonalization-derealization disorder itself or a mental disorder that includes its symptoms.
Both depression and anxiety are associated with depersonalization and derealization. In the case of anxiety, derealization is more prevalent. Derealization occurs when the mind is overly stressed and attempts to tune out the rest of the world so an individual can cope. This means that when someone is having an anxiety or panic attack, their surroundings become foreign to them while their brain tries to deal with the stress of the situation. While this solution may work short term, it can be extremely distressing in the longer term and cause impairment.
Finally, depersonalization and derealization may result from the use or withdrawal from alcohol or drugs.
Presently it is unclear whether genetics may contribute to the development of depersonalization-derealization disorder. However, there is some evidence to support that changes in the chemical structure of the brain and hormonal changes or imbalances may increase a person’s risk of developing the disorder.
To be diagnosed with depersonalization-derealization disorder, an individual must experience persistent feelings of disconnectedness or dissociation, and it must interfere with or significantly affect the social or occupational functioning that is necessary for daily living.
Depersonalization-derealization disorder symptoms can be similar to symptoms associated with medical conditions or the side effects of medications, substance use, or substance withdrawal. Therefore, a thorough physical examination, including laboratory and diagnostic tests, should be performed to rule out the presence of any such state or condition.
Once physical illness or the effects of a medication or substance is ruled out, a diagnosis can be made by a psychologist, psychiatrist, clinical social worker, or other qualified mental health professional.
Treatment for depersonalization-derealization disorder may involve psychotherapy and/or medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a type of psychotherapy, may be helpful in treating the condition. Cognitive behavioral therapy involves teaching clients to challenge negative thoughts and faulty beliefs, resulting in healthier behaviors and symptom reduction. Other types of therapy may include the following:
- Family Therapy helps individuals cope with their disorder while also educating family members about it. This type of therapy is effective because it helps the client feel supported by people in their life who not only understand what they're going through but also have tools to help them.
- Creative Therapy involves using a creative outlet such as art, music, or writing to cope with one's disorder.
- Clinical Hypnosis uses a deep relaxation state to help clients address issues related to their disorder.
Although there is no medication that specifically treats or cures dissociative disorders, there are medication options that may help reduce or manage symptoms. However, it is important to keep in mind that individuals respond to medications differently, and some medications can have unpleasant side effects. Therefore, any use of medication should occur only under the supervision of a medical professional.
Finally, even without treatment, depersonalization-derealization disorder can resolve once stressors are effectively dealt with.
Coping with Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder
Dealing with depersonalization-derealization disorder can feel overwhelming or frightening. However, there are ways to cope, manage symptoms, and ultimately recover.
Learn about the disorder. Learning about any illness or disorder you are experiencing puts the power to manage that condition in your own hands. Ask your physician or mental health professional to provide you with information. In addition, you can search reputable online sources and read books about the disorder. The more you know, the more control you will have over your own life.
Follow your treatment plan. Seeking early treatment and having an established plan of care is so important. Keep all appointments, take medications as prescribed, and discuss any concerns with your doctor or care team as soon as possible.
Stay connected. Having a group of supportive people to rely on can keep you feeling safe and grounded. You may not feel comfortable talking with just anyone about your disorder. However, it can help to confide in a trusted friend or family member. And a licensed therapist is an excellent source of support as well.
Additionally, implementing simple techniques to bring your focus back to reality can relieve the symptoms of depersonalization derealization disorder.
- Touch something that is either soothing or jarring to your senses. For example, you might use a heating pad, an ice pack, or a soft blanket.
- Pinch yourself, just like if you were in a dream. Not the “leave a huge bruise” kind of pinch. Just a nudge to remind yourself that you and your surroundings are real.
- Find an object in the room, maybe something comforting. Describe it in as much detail as possible. This can help you remember that you know where you are and are familiar with your surroundings.
- Count objects in the room.
- Keep your eyes moving and your brain stimulated. When you get stuck in your head, you can start to feel disconnected.
- Use self-talk to remind yourself that you aren't going crazy; this is just a symptom, and in fact you are safe, you are your own person, and things will get better with time and coping skills.
Finally, the best thing you can do for depersonalization-derealization disorder is to just accept it and go about your life. The more you engage in normal activities and interactions, difficult though it can be, the more quickly you are likely to recover.
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