Overcoming depersonalisation and derealisation

DP/DR are two symptoms which anxiety and depression sufferers will most likely be familiar with. They are terrifying feelings which played a huge part in my prolonged anxiety state and agoraphobia last summer. Before I give you my tips and help on how to control and ignore these feelings, let’s make sure you understand just what they are; the first step to overcoming a problem is understanding it.

Depersonalisation (DP) and derealisation (DR) are first and foremost, symptoms of anxiety, depression, prolonged stress/trauma or PTSD. They can also occur due to lack of sleep, and by the use of recreational drugs. People can get sudden, unexpected onsets of DP/DR – most often during or just before a panic/anxiety attack; or the DP/DR can be more chronic depending on the individual.

These two symptoms, although very similar and often co-existing, do carry distinctive differences:

Depersonalisation (DP)
You feel as though you are watching yourself act, running on autopilot, with seemingly no control over  situations. You may feel as if you as a person have changed, that you are not familiar with yourself, you feel almost dreamlike and unreal. Depersonalisation can result in very high anxiety levels – which often increase the perceptions – a vicious circle for sufferers.

When I suffered with depersonalisation I would pinch myself  to convince myself I was, in fact, awake. I would also cry into my bathroom mirror trying to recognise the reflection (sounds crazy, right? I had to avoid mirrors for a while).

Derealisation (DR)
Similar to DP, but different; you feel as though the external world is unreal; it’s lacking spontaneity, emotional depth. It almost sounds like a field of existential philosophy (and I, being interested in that, only found it made dealing with DR 100% times worse, haha).

The perceptions also stretch to looking at people (mine was particularly bad with family members) and feeling they’re unfamiliar, distant, and unreal.

To summarise; depersonalisation (DR) is a heightened sense of one’s self, whilst derealisation (DR) is more to do with your surroundings. They are both very disturbing, frightening feelings which unless someone has experienced them, it’s very hard to appreciate just how scary they are.

Some keywords for you to remember; symptomtemporary, acceptanceunderstanding.

DP and DR cannot exist without the core problem; whether it be your anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, ocd, sleep depravation, etc. People go to seek help for these two symptoms alone (understandably, as they’re very prevalent and unpleasant), but to rid yourself of them – you have to understand what is causing them.

Believe it or not, DP and DR are defence mechanisms used by your body when it’s had enough – too much stress, trauma, anxiety, they exist to mentally protect you from more damage; temporarily shutting off, and somewhat detaching you in order to protect you.

What helped me:

  • Understanding DP/DR, what they are, and why they occur.
  • Acceptance. Philosophically, don’t question everything! (sounds rich coming from me – who’s #1 problem has always been questioning…) but seriously, I’ve learnt that sometimes, regardless how interested I am, it’s better to not know all the answers and secrets of the universe. Chill out and live.
  • Distraction. whether it’s school, being creative, babysitting, falling in love, these ‘normal’ (and very ‘real’) distractions can work wonders as they force you to focus on other things and so, you don’t really have the time to think about yourself. Distracting your mind is key. You have no idea how much I’ve spent on iPhone/iPad “brain game” apps over the past year. But they work!!
  • Spirituality. I bought “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama, and it changed my life. I’m not saying you have to become a buddhist, it’s just that book contains techniques which really helped me. I definitely recommend it.
  • This book also helped me a lot. It’s nothing that I didn’t know already, but I guess just having a self-help book right there in front of you is comforting in a way.
  • Don’t fight it. When I first started suffering badly, these sudden onsets of DP/DR used to terrify me, and I’d try and block them out (mainly shoving my headphones in and listening to music). Now this can work for some people, but it’s much better to face these feelings head-on and learning your triggers. This sort of applies to the next two bullet points, but start to try and notice patterns in your anxiety. 1) is there certain environments/people who make my anxiety worse? 2) is there certain places I’ve found myself avoiding? 3) is there certain (‘safe places’) environments/’safe people’ which help to subside my anxiety? 4) how long does it usually take for the initial panic to pass in a certain situation? etc.
  • Experience: sudden onsets of DP/DR used to really scare me and almost instantly bring on a panic attack. Now I’ve learnt that these feelings are harmless, no matter how intense they are initially, and that the longer I keep myself in a situation, the quicker they’ll pass. Fight or flight, you really have to fight all negative aspects of anxiety.
  • Documenting Progress: making notes/taking pictures/etc documenting your progress and how things have changed for you is really important in recovery. I still have screen shots of status updates I wrote absolutely terrified of driving ten minutes down the road. Now on bad days (which we all get), where I feel I’m “never going to get better” or I feel nothing much has changed, I look back and appreciate just how bad I was and how far I’ve been able to come. The good days will outweigh the bad days 100%
  • Knowing that nothing lasts forever. People change, situations change, and nothing ever stays the same. No matter how hopeless or difficult things are now, life does inevitably change and one day all this will seem like a drop in the ocean. Don’t linger on this, keep positive, and stay strong. You can do it!

Suffering with anxiety made me a less dismissive, more patient person. I’ve always been hyper-sensitive, but I’ve noticed I appreciate other peoples struggles a lot more now – because at one point, every living second was a struggle for me. Everyone really is fighting their own hidden battle.

One thought on “Overcoming depersonalisation and derealisation”

  1. I like what you have written! I am new to dp/dr, very scary indeed. Mine is with me 95% of the time. I see things fine, but my percetion is off and my emotions are out of wack. I am on cybalta which now maskes the symptoms of my anxiety but I still have the attacks just dont realize it till im way in it. Stay strong!

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