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What does depersonalisation disorder feel like?

·5-min read
Photo credit: pixelfit - Getty Images
Photo credit: pixelfit - Getty Images

"I started feeling very spacey, almost like I was asleep. I got my eyes tested a few times because it felt like I was losing my vision, like I couldn't quite see enough.

"It was like I was living my life at 40%. Almost as if there was a line between living and dying, and I was somewhere in the middle. I remember asking people if they ever felt like they were dreaming. They'd all tell me they didn't, but reassured me it would go away. 'Just give it a few weeks, try not to think about it,' they'd say."

Depersonalisation disorder, as described here by musician dodie, is a mental health condition you might not have heard of, but which she isn't alone in experiencing.

In fact, a recent study found that there's been a 120% rise in online searches for 'depersonalisation disorder', with our increased digital media use during the pandemic being noted as a driving factor.

What is depersonalisation disorder?

"Depersonalisation is a common form of dissociative disorder that causes you to feel like you’re watching yourself from outside of your body, making you feel estranged from your own feelings, thoughts and actions," Fatmata Kamara, specialist nurse adviser for mental health at Bupa UK, tells Cosmopolitan UK.

"Sometimes, depersonalisation can be experienced alongside another dissociative disorder called derealisation," Kamara adds. "Most people have feelings of depersonalisation at some point in their lives, but it’s often a feeling that comes and goes. However for some people, depersonalisation can be experienced for weeks or months at a time."

What causes depersonalisation disorder?

"There are lots of potential causes to depersonalisation, but they’re not currently very well understood. Instances of trauma – for example, childhood abuse, invasive medical procedures, or experiencing a traumatic event can be related to someone developing the disorder," the nurse says.

Pointing out how the pandemic could play into the increase in people experiencing depersonalisation, Kamara went on: "Recent research shows that the lockdown periods throughout the pandemic – where many of us spent a lot more time on digital screens, for work and socialising, have contributed to an increase in feelings of depersonalisation, worldwide.

Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images
Photo credit: Klaus Vedfelt - Getty Images

"Typically, when we’re going through a stressful situation, our body’s natural reaction is to 'fight' or 'flight', but in these instances of trauma where it makes it difficult to do either, your body may instead become numb to help you get through the pain, leaving you feeling detached and uncertain about what’s going on around you.

Depersonalisation, the expert adds, can be used by the body as "a coping mechanism to overcome stress or change and can impact how you process traumatic events or environments." This is because it "can often leave you feeling numb and out of touch with your emotions once the trauma subsides."

If you suffer from a mental health condition like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this may cause periods of depersonalisation as well, Kamara notes.

Depersonalisation symptoms

"Along with feeling like you’re an outside observer of your own life, depersonalisation can affect your senses and feelings of control," the nurse explains. "For example, you might have the sense that parts of your body feel distorted, or that your head feels like it’s wrapped in cotton."

Kamara continues: "Depersonalisation can make it feel like you’ve lost control of your movements or speech, leaving you lacking the physical and emotional responses that make you feel alive and human. The disorder can also make you feel numb when you think about your memories, or like they no longer feel like they belong to you."

How to help depersonalisation

"If you, or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depersonalisation, book an appointment with a GP," advises Kamara. "During your initial appointment, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. Based on your answers, they may examine you and conduct tests to see whether there’s any underlying causes to your symptoms. If necessary, you might also be referred to a mental health specialist to have a specialised assessment."

Photo credit: Photographee.eu - Getty Images
Photo credit: Photographee.eu - Getty Images

As well as seeking medical help, which Kamara stresses should be a priority, there are also some self-help techniques that you can use to "help manage your symptoms and keep you grounded in the here and now".

These include:

  • Checking-in on your breathing – take time to breathe slower and recognise the sights, sounds and sensations around you to help you feel more connected.

  • Taking care of the basics – eat a balanced diet, drink lots of water, exercise frequently and get at least seven hours of sleep every night.

  • Writing down your thoughts, feelings and behaviours to help you understand and process the events you’ve been through and are going through.

Depersonalisation treatment

Because depersonalisation is often be triggered by a traumatic event, "talking therapies like counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help many people to make a full recovery", she adds.

As for what a CBT session involves, Kamara explains that "you’ll speak to a qualified professional to talk through the underlying causes of your symptoms and work together to learn techniques that help you manage your symptoms."

As well as therapy, your GP may prescribe medication such as antidepressants to help manage the physical symptoms associated with depersonalisation.

This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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