What Is Depersonalization?

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Depersonalization disorder is a type of dissociation that is specifically the sense of detachment from one’s:

  • Identity
  • Thoughts
  • Feeling
  • Consciousness
  • Emotions
  • Memory

It's sometimes associated with derealization disorder, which is when people or the things around you don’t seem real.

Japanese woman taking counselling

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Symptoms

With depersonalization disorder, you may feel as if you are watching your life take place like you are watching a movie. It is often described as an out-of-body experience. The symptoms can include:

  • Feeling physically numb to sensations in your body
  • Feeling like you are unable to control your speech or movement
  • Difficulty attaching to your emotions, memories, and physical feelings
  • Difficulty relating memories of something that happened to you
  • Feeling like your body or limbs are distorted (enlarged or smaller)
  • Feeling as though your head is wrapped in cotton
  • Difficulty recognizing and describing your emotions

The symptoms of depersonalization can last anywhere from a few minutes to years. It’s rare for the symptoms to last for years, but it can happen.

Still in Touch With Reality

During symptoms, most people are aware that their sense of detachment is only a feeling and not their reality.

Causes

The development of dissociative disorders—like depersonalization—is often a way to cope with trauma. It's a common side effect of post-traumatic stress disorder and often develops in people who are exposed to long-term abuse. Other types of stressful situations can also cause depersonalization like a natural disaster or combat.

Anxiety and depression can be comorbidities and are often diagnosed alongside depersonalization.

Risk factors for depersonalization include:

  • Emotional or physical abuse during childhood
  • History of sexual assault
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • The unexpected death of a loved one
  • History of drug use
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Severe stress

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of depersonalization is based on a review of your symptoms and history. Your doctor may also recommend other tests to rule out conditions, such as a head injury, brain lesions, sleep disorders, or seizures that could be the cause of the symptoms.

Many People Experience Symptoms of Depersonalization

Between 26 to 74% of people will experience symptoms of depersonalization at some point in their life, but only 1 to 2% of these individuals meet the criteria to be diagnosed with depersonalization disorder.

The diagnosis of depersonalization disorder is based on the criteria defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Diagnosis is done with a review of symptoms and your history. Typically, a psychiatrist who specializes in mental health disorders will complete the assessment. They will look at:

  • Persistent or recurrent episodes of depersonalization
  • An understanding of what they are feeling isn't real
  • Significant distress or impaired social or occupational functioning caused by the symptoms

Treatment

For some people, the symptoms resolve without any interventions or treatments. Other people require personalized treatments to help with managing their symptoms. Treatment will help to resolve triggers and provide strategies to help cope with stressors.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, are the most effective treatments for depersonalization disorder because it teaches techniques to manage and resolve symptoms.

Psychotherapy techniques can help to:

  • Block persistent thinking about being dissociated from your body
  • Engage in tasks to distract from the symptoms of depersonalization
  • Use grounding techniques to help patients to feel more connected to themselves and the world around them, and help them feel more connected with reality
  • Provide strategies to cope with negative feelings, internal conflicts, and experiences that trigger dissociation

Medication

There is no specific medication that is able to cure depersonalization. A doctor may recommend medications for anxiety or depression to help manage these common comorbid conditions. This could help to reduce the symptoms of depersonalization if anxiety and depression are part of your triggers for symptoms.

Coping

Depersonalization can be a highly distressing disorder, so be sure to discuss any symptoms with a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of depersonalization, there are some strategies you can try to help you feel more connected to yourself and reality. These include:

  • Pinching your skin to feel more connected to your body
  • Taking slow, deep breaths while focusing on the movement of your chest and diaphragm
  • Calling a friend or family member and have them talk with you to help you feel more connected with other people and reality
  • Keeping your eyes moving around your surroundings to prevent zoning out
  • Practicing meditation to increase your awareness of your emotions
  • Looking around at your surroundings and count the objects you see, their colors, or name them

Call for Help

If you or someone you know is struggling with depersonalization, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information about support and treatment facilities near you.

For more resources about mental health, see our National Helpline DataBase

A Word From Verywell

Both experiencing the symptoms and being diagnosed with depersonalization can be very confusing and upsetting. Working with a healthcare professional can help establish an effective plan to help you manage your symptoms and relieve stress around the symptoms. Treatment can help with managing symptoms, and in some cases, the symptoms can be completely resolved.

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Article Sources
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