Have you ever stared off into space, feeling a little fuzzy, a little distant and disconnected from the world around you? Like you’re in a light trance or a dream-like state, detached from your body and your feelings, observing yourself and the world around you like an outsider?
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If you’re not familiar with that feeling, it can be a bit scary in the moment. But it’s not a dream. It’s a real experience called depersonalization. You’re not alone in experiencing this treatable condition, though. To better understand depersonalization and what you can do about it, we spoke to psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD.
Dr. Albers says depersonalization is a form of disassociation in which a person feels detached from their experience and, specifically, themselves. The feelings that come along with depersonalization add to the surreal nature of the event.
“People describe feeling like a zombie, in a fog or in a dreamlike state,” says Dr. Albers. “Things don’t seem real. They may feel like they are watching or observing themselves from a distance as if they are an actor in a movie.”
With depersonalization, you’re typically aware that your perception is off, she adds, but that doesn’t make it any less strange. “It’s like an out-of-body experience. Someone may feel like they are floating above or beside themselves. Other times, a person may not feel in control of their actions or disconnected from their own body like a robot, not feeling or sensing things.”
Once you’ve experienced it, you can come to recognize it. But if it’s new for you, it can be confusing, even frightening. “If you don’t immediately know why you’re feeling that way, it can lead to panic, anxiety or even depression,” notes Dr. Albers.
“The exact cause of depersonalization isn’t clear but it does seem complex,” says Dr. Albers. “In part, it may be a way of self-soothing or destimulating from overwhelming sensations.”
Dr. Albers notes that it seems that depersonalization is most often triggered by particularly traumatic events. “It’s often extreme levels of this trauma that lead to this disorder,” she says. “It’s the mind’s way of coping with a painful or traumatic experience, separating it out from the memory and sensory aspects of the experience.”
When learning and talking about depersonalization, you might also hear about derealization, a similar disassociation with one key difference. While depersonalization is about someone feeling detached from themselves, derealization is when a person feels that the things around them seem unreal.
“Depersonalization doesn’t feel as socially isolating from others because the response is more internal,” Dr. Albers points out. “Derealization is similar but more focused on being detached from what is happening around you.”
When experiencing derealization, you may feel very disconnected from relationships and your daily experience. Your environment may seem blurry, distorted, dreamlike or even two-dimensional. Objects may appear distorted in size as being too big or too little. Time may become fuzzy with recent events seeming like they’re in the distant past or sped up.
“Overall, it can feel like experiencing the world through a veil,” she says.
There are a few ways that you can cope and even treat depersonalization.
“Therapy can often help treat depersonalization, as it helps identify what specifically triggers a dissociative state and how you can stay grounded,” says Dr. Albers. “And a professional can also walk you through what you’re experiencing and provide additional coping tips.”
Talking through your feelings can also help you process them, keeping you from detaching from them. And therapy can also help you address and process any trauma that may be the root cause, Dr. Albers adds, saying, “This may include understanding how the trauma led to this coping response and new, healthy coping responses.”
Recreational drugs and alcohol can trigger feelings of depersonalization so any usage of those should stop, says Dr. Albers. “They alter the brain neurochemistry and invoke changes in perceptual reality,” she says. If you need help quitting, see your healthcare provider, who can recommend resources and treatments that are right for you.
Staying connected with the environment around you can help you stay present and in the moment. Some examples include:
Additional actions that can help you inhabit your body — like clapping, blinking or clenching your fist — can also help you feel connected. “Using your five senses is key to being present and grounded,” says Dr. Albers. “And listening to music can help to calm down your system and physiological responses.”
“Breathing exercises help calm your physiological response to stress and your flight or fight mechanism, which may be what flips the switch to dissociation,” notes Dr. Albers. One helpful breathing pattern she suggests is to breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds and breathe out for six seconds.
Practicing meditation and mindfulness is another way to stay present and aware of your own body. “These techniques can teach you how to observe physical and emotional sensations calmly and safely,” says Dr. Albers.
Most depersonalization episodes last from a few minutes to a few hours before fading. But more severe episodes can last for a day, weeks or even months. “It can occur during short periods of acute distress or last a lifetime when left untreated,” says Dr. Albers.
While there’s no telling how long your episodes might last, it’s important to know that just about everyone will experience something like depersonalization.
“It’s common for everyone to have fleeting moments of feeling detached from oneself or in a dreamlike state,” explains Dr. Albers. “However, when the feeling is persistent or interferes with daily functioning, it is a problem and likely has developed into a disorder.”
She also points out that a significant problem can arise when this condition negatively impacts relationships. “A dissociative response makes it difficult to truly connect with others, leading a person to question their experience and emotions, as well as have lapses in their memory about what happened with significant others.”
They may also struggle to get close to others or detach from their body when touched.
Seek support from friends and family you feel comfortable talking to. Talking through what you’re experiencing and having that strong support system can also help you feel more grounded and aid your mental health.
Depersonalization and derealization can be scary experiences but the combination of these exercises, therapy and support from friends and family can help alleviate these episodes, making you feel more grounded in your body.