Depersonalisation is an unusual set of feelings that leave you feeling ‘detached’ from the world around you and almost as though your own body does not belong to you. Often if you look in the mirror it will seem as though you are not looking at yourself, you might feel ‘alone’ and as though you are the only person who is real. Indeed you may feel as though the whole world around you is just a dream or that you have become zombie like in your existence. Your own voice may feel distant and you might find that you lack your usual interest or emotional response.
It is a subjective feeling of ‘unreality’ which can be brought about by lack of social interaction (cabin fever), drug use, brain damage or chemical imbalances, anxiety, existential crisis, trauma (recent or childhood), boredom or none of the above. It can lead to depression, lack of enjoyment or appreciation of your normal activities, panic attacks and eventually to reckless behaviour and maybe even self harm. For a more lyrical description see the Pink Floyd song ‘Comfortably Numb’ which describes a form of depersonalisation (for another artistic interpretation see the famous painting ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch).
If depersonalisation is chronic (continuous) then it is considered depersonalisation disorder. While some people may consider depersonalisation interesting or desirable (some people who use mind altering drugs do so in order to feel depersonalisation), it is in most cases highly distressing and even dangerous. Here then we will look at some techniques you can use to help yourself to conquer these feelings and return to normal functioning.
Socialise: As mentioned, feelings of depersonalisation can be a result of cabin fever and if you don’t allow yourself to interact with others you can very quickly begin to feel as though the world around you and your experiences are ‘unreal’. It is possible this way to get into a vicious cycle as you avoid interaction as a result of your depersonalisation and this then worsens your condition. It is important then to ‘force’ yourself to go out and socialise and to make sure that you spend lots of time interacting with people and enjoying lots of unique and different experiences. This will help you to enjoy yourself and to re-engage with the world around you and your feelings. If you haven’t been out in a long time then this may at first be nerve racking and distressing but you will find that after a while you get back into the ‘swing’ of social contact. If you are in the situation you are in because you have no means of socialising in your current circumstances then try taking up a club that you go to regularly which will help to get you out and about.
Break up your routine: If you are stuck in a ‘rut’ and performing the same routine day-in, day-out then this can make you start to question your reality as the daily grind becomes predictable and disinteresting. Do something occasionally then to make sure you break your routine and experience something new whether this is a holiday or an event like skydiving.
Address your anxiety: Depersonalisation can come about as a result of anxiety. The reason for this is that your body makes you feel unreal or ‘detached’ in order to help you deal with the stress and the fear – almost like a psychological pain killer. This was the case in the wild to help prevent us becoming paralysed with fear in the face of a hungry lion, but in today’s world it is far less adaptive.
In order to help yourself stop feeling ‘depersonalised’ then you should try to find out what is causing you stress and then deal with these feelings so that it is ‘safe’ to return to the real world (again then a holiday might be what you need). In some cases the anxiety or the stress will be the result of a childhood trauma and sometimes speaking to a psychotherapist can help you face these demons rather than using depersonalisation as an unconscious coping mechanism.
Avoid drugs: Some recreational drugs are designed in order to induce feelings of depersonalisation and of course using any of these can worsen the feeling. Other drugs too though can worsen this such as sleeping tablets for example which sometimes include serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and thus leave you with more ‘numbing’ serotonin, and alcohol which is a depressant that blurs your perception of reality. While you might feel as though alcohol or drugs could offer you short term relief, they may in fact be causing your problem. Try to stop using any drugs whatsoever, and likewise try to improve your diet and ensure that you are filled with lots of ‘clean’ energy – eat high quantities of fibre, complex carbs and vitamins and minerals.
Exercising: Exercising is a remedy for a vast range of health problems and psychological problems. In the case of depersonalisation it can help in many ways – making you feel more connected to your body as you feel the sensation of straining against weights or running and as you feel the tiredness that comes from this. At the same time it can help you to produce many helpful hormones such as endorphins and dopamine. Dopamine helps to increase our sense of drive, reward and purpose, while endorphins are commonly known as the ‘happiness hormone’ and help us to feel more alert, awake and cheerful. Exercise is particularly effective if you do it outside as being outside means you will be getting sunlight and fresh air, both of which will help you to produce the right hormones and chemicals and both of which will also increase your energy and your feeling of being ‘connected’.
Set goals and challenges: Sometimes depersonalisation will come from the feeling that life is ‘pointless’ and that you’re not heading anywhere or achieving anything. If this is the case, then setting yourself a series of different goals and challenges can help to give meaning to your life and drive you forward give you something to focus on. Think about what the next stage in your life is, the things that you value, and speak to your friends about how you can get your ‘vavavoom’ back.
Writing: Some people find it helps to express their feelings of depersonalisation in writing or through other artistic mediums.
Meditation: Meditation is used by many people with depersonalisation to help them come to terms with the problem. This can help for many reasons as it may help them to explore their own mind and as such feel more ownership of their own thoughts and feelings. At the same time though meditation has been shown to be very beneficial for us in terms of our health and our psychology in many ways – and particularly in reducing anxiety which as we’ve already seen can help depersonalisation. Try sitting in a dark room and clearing your mind and then just letting your thoughts come and go as they please until they eventually fall silent. Different people meditate differently so see what works for you.
Taking breaks: If you spend a lot of time in front of the computer, television or video games, then this will mean that you’re spending a lot of time paying attention to a reality other than your own. This can then lead to feelings of detachment and surreality and as a result you may find that you are more prone to this problem if you work in an office or are house-bound (it’s particularly the case if you work in a claustrophobic office with little social interaction and sterile lighting). Try taking breaks where you walk around, go outside, do something else for a bit or speak with your colleagues at the water fountain.
Sleep: Sleep disorders can contribute to depersonalisation in a number of ways. If you sleep too much this can often leave us feeling drowsy and detached during the day, and especially if we wake up very late and miss a large part of the day. Furthermore though, not sleeping enough can also make us feel detached as we end up overly tired during the day and our dreams start to creep into our daily thoughts and mingle with them. Make sure that you get a good 8 hours of quality sleep every day and try to regulate your sleep patterns so that you get up at a good time every morning and go to bed at a reasonable time during the evening. This will also help you to feel more a part of the rest of society and will help you to socialise more as you will be awake at more sociable hours.
CBT: CBT is ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ and is a form of therapy that looks at our thinking patterns and how they can sometimes cause psychological problems. Here they will teach things like ‘mindfulness’ which is the practice of ‘observing’ your own thoughts by listening to them as they go past rather than interacting with them. This then allows you to notice some of the negative things you think yourself which in the case of depersonalisation might mean things like ‘what’s the point?’ or ‘it feels as though nothing is real’. In CBT you would then learn to be able to change these thoughts and so change their effect. For instance the next time you caught yourself thinking ‘what’s the point’ you might change this so that you thought ‘what’s around me, how do I feel and what am I doing?’ or ‘this is fun/challenging/exciting’. Eventually the more positive thoughts will replace the negative ones (in theory) and you should begin to stop questioning your reality.
Coming to terms with your situation: One technique that can help with depersonalisation that is born of CBT but would not necessarily be raised by all cognitive behavioural therapists is to try and recognise your condition as a symptom of stress, tiredness or depression and not to give it any importance. When we are suffering from depression or other psychological issues it is common to ‘over analyse’ ourselves and find ourselves questioning many of our thought patterns such as feelings of depersonalisation. It’s this that makes us feel as though there’s ‘something wrong with us’ or as though we are alone, or to increase the stress and panic that is contributing to the problem. Instead then, recognise this as just a symptom of a different problem and one that most of us have experienced in one form or another at some time. Focus on beating the anxiety or the depression and don’t worry as such about the depersonalisation. It may be that after a while it eventually fades into the background.
See a doctor: However failing all these attempts to understand and control the experience you should consult with a doctor. They may be able to prescribe you drugs that can help you to overcome the feelings of isolation and surrealism, or refer you to a specialist.