“She was a stranger in her own life, a tourist in her own body”
Melissa de la Cruz
One of the most unpleasant symptoms of my anxiety was the very surreal feeling of not really being part of the world anymore.
I’d feel spaced out, not with it and like I wasn’t real or present in my day to day actions and experiences.
This was often coupled with feeling dizzy, light headed and a constant need to rest or sleep in a darkened room.
I felt like a numbness had crept over my body and mind, the world no longer seemed to be in 3D. Instead it would become flat, grey and dull, like I was watching myself through a screen.
I’d often suddenly notice myself doing something but it would feel like I was watching someone else do it, then I’d realise it was actually me and a sudden wave of fear would rush over me.
Actually, to say it was unpleasant is an understatement, it was down right distressing and one of the main contributors to my health anxiety. All I could keep thinking was, ‘something has to be wrong with my brain’.
It took several years until I realised what was going on, I was experiencing anxiety induced depersonalisation and derealisation.
In today’s post I am going to be looking at both of these conditions in some detail, why they are experienced by many anxiety sufferers and how to stop them occurring.
What is depersonalisation and derealisation?
DP and DR are both types of dissociative disorders, when they occur it is called dissociation or to dissociate.
Is where you do not feel real and your mind feels disconnected from your body. Your body and especially your limbs do not feel like a part of you, they often seem different and out of place.
You feel withdrawn, numb and often as if it is not you performing the actions you are doing. Many liken it to watching their life through a film in which they are not the participant.
Is where the world around you does not feel real. Objects and colours do not seem as you remember them and they can often appear to change in shape and colour or become fuzzy or blurry.
You often get tunnel vision and the things outside your peripheral view seem strange or out of place.
The world can seem grey, flat and 2D and the people in it do not feel real, like they are robots or automatons.
So what is going on?
Your sense of reality or ‘being’ is all controlled within your mind. The world only exists to you because of your thoughts, feelings, perceptions and memories.
As René Descartes once famously said:
“I think, therefore I am”
In other words, because you are able to think you must exist, it is impossible to doubt your existence because by doubting it proves you do exist.
However, if your thoughts, feelings, perceptions and memories become disconnected you lose your sense of identity and who you are.
They way you view yourself, your actions and the world you inhabit changes and you become ‘dissociated’ from reality.
You feel like your mind and body are two separate entities. When people experience this for a very brief period of time it is often referred to as ‘an out of body experience’.
When it starts to occur frequently and for long periods of time it becomes a dissociative disorder. You constantly feel like you are looking at yourself and the world from a distance and not through your own eyes.
Why does this happen?
DP and DR are both caused by your brain trying to protect you.
When you are exposed to severe and/or long periods of stress or have a traumatic experience your brain wants to numb the way you feel.
It as if it is trying to save you from yourself, that the thoughts and feelings you are going through are so extreme that it knows it needs to limit their impact upon you.
It does this by dissociating, to make you feel like you are not really there and the stress or trauma is not happening to you.
It’s the reason why people go into shock soon after a life threatening situation and often afterwards are unable to recall what happened to them. It’s because their brain switched off all but their basic survival functions to numb the experience.
DP and DR are not just a symptom of anxiety, they can also be triggered by a number of other things.
People who survive brutal wars, physical or sexual abuse, drug abuse or anything which can put a serious stress on your mind are prone to suffer. In these circumstances it is often known as acute onset, where the severeness of their situation quickly pushes the mind to dissociate.
Dissociation caused by anxiety and panic is known as transient or ‘short lived’, because the sufferer only experiences the symptoms some of the time. Usually when they are feeling anxious or in the middle of a panic attack.
Why can anxiety cause depersonalisation and derealisation?
Most people who develop DP and DR because of their anxiety do not do so for several months or even years after becoming anxious or suffering panic attacks.
The slow but constant stress the anxiety and panic attacks put upon your nervous system eventually accumulates to a point where your mind feels it needs to protect you by dissociating.
That said, with anxiety sufferers there is often a specific event, usually an extreme panic attack which pushes them over the edge and causes their first dissociative experience.
Once this has happened it then starts to occur more frequently each time you feel anxious or panicked, even if this is at a low level. It is as if once the brain has learnt how to do this, it becomes very easy for it to happen again.
You may even feel fairly calm and relaxed but because you still have a general low elevated level of anxiety it still occurs. This is a large contributing factor in people believing there is something physically wrong with them.
How to be sure it is caused by anxiety and panic
For many the feelings of DP and DR are so unnerving that you do not believe it has anything to do with your anxiety or panic attacks. What makes it worse is that even when you feel calm inside you can still dissociate.
This can lead to many hours trawling the internet looking for a condition to match your symptoms and endless visits to your doctor asking them to check for this or that.
When the test rules out one condition you feel a small sense of relief before continuing to look for the next problem you must have.
The more you worry and the more negative your thought processes become the greater the stress you put upon your mind. This simply exacerbates the problems and increases the frequency and length of time you dissociate for.
You get to the point where you are certain something has to be wrong, but the only thing which is wrong is this:
You are unable to see that your anxiety is a master of deception, not only is it a lie in itself, but it is able to make you believe something else must be responsible for the way you feel.
Your anxiety produces lies which you are only too willing to believe, often because subconsciously you want to believe them. It’s much easier to be diagnosed with ME or MS and have an immediate answer and plan of treatment, than to still be lost in the unknown.
For a very long time I was sure that there was something wrong with my brain.
How could I feel this way and there not be something wrong?!
I needed a diagnosis, a name, something I could tell others I had. So at least in someway they could try and understand how I felt.
It took me a long time, but now I know without doubt it was just anxiety all along. Just another one of its many symptoms, another distortion of my thoughts which I had blindly trusted.
How do I know?
1) Because the dissociation had been happening for so long and yet it had not changed or worsened. In fact it was worst at the beginning when I had now idea what it was.
After suffering with DP and DR for almost 8 years, I got to the point where I gave up caring. It had been long enough to know that nothing life threatening was happening to me, I’d just had enough of feeling this way.
I’d finally got to the point where I knew it never would, it was a mental issue, nothing more. If it were a physical issue with my brain I would have to have seen some deterioration over time by now.
I never did and I never will.
2) It wasn’t constant, it would come and go and would never follow any pattern.
I tried to link it to all manner of things; what I’d eaten, exercise, my environment, how much I’d slept, types of lighting – anything I could think of.
The only pattern it did follow was this, when I felt stressed or anxious (even without knowing) it was most likely to occur and when the stress or problem causing my anxiety was removed it would stop, often instantly.
I’ve had days on end when I’ve been away on holiday, calm and relaxed with nothing to worry about and I’ve felt absolutely fine. A few days later I have some stressful meeting at work to do and BANG, there it was again. Then within minutes of the meeting being over it had gone and I was left wondering why I had felt so spaced out and not with it in the first place.
Real serious physical conditions of the brain and body do not work that way. They don’t just switch on and off like that, it is only your mental problems which can.
A better way of thinking
It is so important that you believe that DP and DR are caused by your anxiety and not that there is something wrong with you.
Otherwise you will be spending your energy, effort and time trying to look for an answer that will never come. All it is likely to do is worsen the way you feel and you start to lose all hope and get lost in your despair.
Even if you still can’t fully believe yourself, then believe me when I say it……….your dissociation IS caused by your anxiety, it is certainly not some life threatening condition.
It should be the best news you’ve heard in a very long time, because it means when you reduce and then prevent your anxiety occurring the dissociation will reduce and eventually stop too.
Do not attempt to address the DP and DR as a separate issue, it is induced by your anxiety and therefore it is this root cause you must focus your time and efforts on.
How to prevent anxiety induced depersonalisation and derealisation
First you must understand this:
Depersonalisation and Derealisation are completely out of your control – you will never have any conscious say in when they occur or when they stop.
Because DP and DR occur when your brain feels the need to protect you, they will therefore only cease when your brain feels that need for protection no longer exists. This is part of your brain’s hard wiring and not something you will ever be able to alter.
By worrying about it all you will do is maintain your stress levels or increase them even further. The more stress your brain feels the more it feels the need to protect itself, eventually even low level stress will lead to dissociation.
If you constantly worry about it, the threat remains ‘real’ and you will continue to dissociate.
Do not give it the time and thought to maintain the stress and anxiety it requires for it to exist. You must learn to not care if you feel anxious and to not care if you feel the feelings and sensations of dissociation.
Instead you must completely ignore it, understand why it is there, accept it is there and that you cannot control it directly and then get on with your day.
Forget about trying to feel better, stop checking yourself to see how you are doing and just get on with whatever is important to you in your life.
You cannot force upon yourself ‘feeling normal’, when you stop focusing on trying to recover because you no longer care, the recovery will come to you.
This often happens without you even noticing it at first, and this is the way it has to be because it means you were no longer looking for it.
In the meantime just understand that this cannot hurt you, you have nothing physically wrong with yourself. Once the mind stops seeing this as a threat to itself the dissociation will reduce and eventually stop.
This will take time and commitment to master, to learn to quickly ignore it when it occurs and not to get trapped into the vicious cycle of negative thinking and worry.
It’s not easy, because in essence what you are doing is nothing, you are not reacting to it. You must make this non reaction to it to become habit and you must not become disheartened when after a week you see little change.
It took many months for your brain to become anxious and stressed enough to be able to dissociate and so it will take time for it to learn that there is no threat to it again.
Although below I am about to advise you to stay clear of reading into this anymore on websites and forums I do recommend you read this post once every week to remind yourself of why you need to do this and why you must keep at it.
Things to help in the meantime
There are also some other things which I would recommend you do, or in some cases not do, which will help in your recovery from dissociation.
- Learn how to live day by day so that you focus on what is important now and not worry about the past and future
- Exercise – if there is one thing which empties the mind of negative thoughts and feelings it’s exercise. It will keep your mind from worrying about how you are feeling and help give you the drive and focus required to get on with the important things in your day.
- Not visiting forums or spending hours researching dissociation or other conditions you think you may have. You have just read everything you need to know here and there is certainly no need to get drawn down into the depressing world of people pouring their hearts out on a forum.
- Stop believing the lies your anxiety is telling you – this is absolutely key in reducing the stress it puts on you.
- Getting a good nights sleep, this should mean at least 8 hours and with a regular sleeping pattern. Tiredness is a stress in itself and this can cause dissociation, it also reduces your ability to focus on the things you should be focusing on.
- Use the Calm and Courageous grounding technique for quickly reducing depersonalisation and derealisation.
- Read the other articles on this blog for reducing and preventing anxiety, because when you remove the stress you stop the brain needing to dissociate.
You must trust and believe in the process, then commit to it one hundred percent.
Make this the most important thing you do above all else, because it is your mind and your thoughts you need to get right first, then everything else will follow.
It’s all about showing yourself that you have nothing to fear.
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