What Is Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder?
There are a variety of reasons why a person might feel temporarily disconnected from themselves or their surroundings, or experience the sensation of being “in a daze”. Fatigue, illness, stress, medication side effects, and alcohol—even in small amounts—can cause these feelings, which may resolve without a visit to a doctor. Passing feelings aren’t always a cause for concern. In some cases, however, those symptoms may indicate the presence of a psychological condition known as a depersonalization-derealization disorder (DDD).
Those experiencing DDD may have a persistent or recurring feeling of detachment from their body or disconnection from their thoughts, mental processes, feelings, and experiences (depersonalization). Feelings of living “outside of reality” or being disconnected from one’s surroundings (derealization) are also common symptoms. These ongoing feelings of disconnection are involuntary and may intensify during times of stress. While anyone may experience these briefly from time to time or during a traumatic event, those with depersonalization-derealization typically do so frequently and/or to such a great degree that it significantly interferes with their lives. Recurrent episodes of these disorders may lead to difficulties with daily functioning.
Symptoms Of Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder
Many experts have considered depersonalization-derealization disorder as having two main components: depersonalization and derealization (hence its name.) Each of these components has its own distinct set of symptoms, but both must be experienced to fit a diagnosis for this disorder.
The Symptoms Of Depersonalization
Individuals experiencing depersonalization may:
- Feel like an audience to their own thoughts, experiences, and feelings, as if someone else is living their life
- Feel mechanical, automated, and robotic, sometimes to the point of feeling like they aren't in control of their own actions
- Have disturbances in self-perception, such as confusion about one’s personality or physical state of being
- Have a heightened awareness of surroundings
- Feel emotional numbness
- Feel a detachment from and a lack of emotion associated with memories, which may cause the individual to question whether those memories are real or their own
The Symptoms Of Derealization
Individuals experiencing derealization complications, episodes, or symptoms may:
- Feel like they’re living in a movie
- Feel disconnected from others, especially emotionally
- Perceive their surroundings as blurry or unreal; or, alternatively, feel like all their senses are heightened, like they are extremely aware of where they are
- Have an impaired sense of time
Finally, anxiety is a prevalent symptom of depersonalization-derealization as well. It often occurs when the mind is overly stressed and attempts to detach from the rest of the world as a coping mechanism. This means that when someone is experiencing the negative feelings associated with anxiety or the onset of panic attacks, their surroundings become foreign to them while the brain tries to process the stress of the situation.
What Causes Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder?
While some people fear that depersonalization-derealization is caused by irreversible brain damage, depersonalization, and derealization may be symptoms of a few different mental health disorders, or they may be classified as a disorder on their own. This means it can be difficult to pinpoint their exact cause. However, there is often a strong correlation between these symptoms and severe trauma in someone’s early or middle childhood. Individuals who experienced or were exposed to neglect or abuse as children—whether that be physical, sexual, or emotional abuse—are at higher risk of developing either DDD or other mental disorders that include its symptoms.
Many mental health professionals believe that because personality traits and personal identity are generally formed in childhood and rooted in childhood trauma, children often find it easier to disconnect from reality during difficult situations, severe trauma, or in times of abuse or severe emotional stress as a coping mechanism. If left untreated, a child who develops depersonalization-derealization disorder may continue to use the same coping mechanisms in response to abuse, severe stress, or traumatic situations during early adulthood, or even later.
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According to the Cleveland Clinic, depersonalization and derealization may also be signs of another condition like a seizure disorder, brain disease, or a psychiatric or psychotic disorder. It may also occur because of the use of or withdrawal from alcohol, prescription drugs, or recreational drugs. The Merck Manual states that depersonalization/derealization disorder may be triggered later in life by severe stress.
Certain genetic and environmental factors may cause the symptoms of this disorder as well. Environmental factors that may trigger episodes can vary and may include different sights, smells, sounds, touches, or even events like natural disasters. For genetic factors, one study has linked the genes ADCY8 and DPP6 to the cognitive process that underlies dissociative phenomena. Finally, both prolonged depression and anxiety are associated with symptoms of depersonalization and derealization.
How Is DDD Diagnosed?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5), to be diagnosed with depersonalization-derealization disorder, an individual must experience persistent or recurring feelings of disconnectedness or dissociation, and they must interfere with or significantly affect the social or occupational functioning that’s necessary for daily living.
The symptoms of this disorder can be similar to those associated with certain medical conditions, or the side effects of medications, substance use, or substance withdrawal. That’s why a thorough physical examination—including laboratory and diagnostic tests—is usually performed first to rule out any of these.
After that, a psychologist may administer a questionnaire and otherwise interview the patient to gather information about their personal history and experience. They’ll likely also consult the DSM-5 to verify that the individual meets the criteria for behaviors that indicate depersonalization or derealization. Once a diagnosis is made, the mental health professional will develop and propose a treatment plan.
How Is DDD Treated?
Treatment for depersonalization-derealization disorder may involve psychotherapy and/or medication. One of the most popular treatments for the disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
In one small study, 21 participants with the disorder were treated with CBT. The therapy focused on helping them reinterpret their symptoms in a non-threatening way and reduce avoidance. At both the post-treatment and six-month follow-ups, patients reported significant improvement in the severity of their depersonalization-derealization episodes. In addition, significant improvements were found in standardized measures of dissociation, depression, anxiety, and general functioning at both points. By the end of treatment, 29% of participants no longer met the criteria for depersonalization disorder.
Other types of therapy used to treat depersonalization derealization disorder may include:
- Family therapy, which can help individuals cope with their disorder while also educating their family about it. This type of therapy can be effective because it may help the client feel supported by people in their life once they’re made to understand what they’re going through and are equipped with tools to help.
- Creative therapy involves using a creative outlet such as art, music, or writing to cope with symptoms.
- Clinical hypnosis induces a deep state of relaxation to help clients address issues related to their disorder.
There are also certain techniques that can help with certain symptoms of depersonalization-derealization, like dissociation. One example would be moment-to-moment tracking, which involves identifying when you are having dissociative feelings and choosing to focus on what is actually occurring in that moment. This method can be used in a therapeutic setting to help a person better understand their specific experience with dissociation and this disorder.
Finding A Therapist
CBT is one of the most common types of therapy practiced today. That means you’re likely to have a variety of options to choose from when seeking out a provider if you suspect you have depersonalization-derealization or other mental health disorders. First, decide whether you’d like to meet with a mental health professional in person or virtually. While in-person therapy is the traditional treatment model, research now suggests that online therapy can offer similar benefits in most cases. If you’re in an area where locating an in-person provider is difficult, you don’t have reliable transportation to get to appointments, or you simply prefer the convenience of attending talk therapy from the comfort of home, virtual sessions may be worth considering.
With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, for instance, you can get matched with a licensed therapist based on your answers to a brief questionnaire, and you can then meet with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat. For many individuals, this format can be more reachable and comfortable than traditional methods. Read on for a client review of a BetterHelp counselor.
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Frequently Asked Questions About Derealization (FAQs)
What triggers depersonalization?
Depersonalization usually occurs in response to a traumatic event or long-term exposure to abuse or neglect, such as childhood trauma. Memories of the event, increased anxiety related to stressful life situations, or changes in personal roles may also trigger depersonalization responses.
Why do I keep dissociating?
Dissociating is a coping mechanism that typically occurs in response to a traumatic event and a person’s inability to effectively cope with their memory. If you are experiencing ongoing symptoms of dissociation, it’s important to seek the help of a mental health professional who will help you establish a plan of care to manage the disorder.
Can derealization-depersonalization be cured?
Although there is no known cure for derealization disorder, many people find that treatment can be effective in reducing symptoms and may lead to the remission of the disorder.
Does anxiety cause depersonalization?
If anxiety is overwhelming and left unmanaged, it can cause symptoms of depersonalization. While this does not happen in all cases of extreme anxiety, any symptoms of depersonalization should be addressed with a mental health professional.
Is derealization a symptom of schizophrenia?
Mental health disorders such as schizophrenia may cause symptoms of derealization. However, not everyone with schizophrenia is diagnosed with derealization disorder.
Does derealization affect memory?
While derealization may temporarily affect a person’s concentration, it is not typically associated with memory loss or impairment.
How long does depersonalization last?
Depersonalization can last from a few minutes in rare cases to as many as several years in others. The underlying cause of the disorder may determine how long a person is affected. For example, the symptoms of someone who experienced trauma or abuse as a child may last longer than those of a person who is experiencing symptoms related to the use of drugs or alcohol.
Does alcohol or nicotine use cause depersonalization?
In some cases, people in the general population who use substances such as ketamine, alcohol, nicotine, and hallucinogens may experience symptoms of depersonalization.
Can antidepressants cause depersonalization?
Antidepressants may intensify symptoms of depersonalization in some people. Symptoms may be more severe in individuals who took antidepressants and then, after a period of being off the medication, began a new regimen of antidepressant therapy.
What does depersonalization feel like?
People with depersonalization disorder often describe feeling separate from their bodies, as if they are floating in the air and unable to connect with normal sensations. For example, many people with depersonalization disorder report an inability to feel heat or cold or to recognize when they are hungry or tired.
What are the symptoms of depersonalization disorder?
Is depersonalization derealization disorder severe?
Is depersonalization disorder a mental illness?
What do people with depersonalization see?
How do doctors test for depersonalization?
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