Understanding and overcoming depersonalization-derealization disorder

A strange mental health issue affects millions of people every year. Yet, almost no one in the medical community is aware of it. Many suffer in silence without having the right guidance and support. In this article, I’d like to help you understand what depersonalization-derealization disorder is and how you can overcome it.

Depersonalization-derealization disorder, often referred to as DP/DR, can be a debilitating and scary mental health disorder for the person who experiences it. It’s a dissociative disorder that makes one feel disconnected from themselves and their environment. Life to the sufferer feels like a dream. People going through DP/DR often report feeling like they’re watching a movie about themselves.

As someone who struggled with DP/DR for years and eventually found a path to recovery, I want to help others who are currently struggling with this illness. I want to share with you the fundamental techniques to recover from DP/DR.

What are the symptoms of DP/DR?

While each person experiences DP/DR slightly differently, most people experience certain common symptoms. Here are some major symptoms of DP/DR:

  • Feeling detached as if one is watching a movie about oneself
  • Not feeling like being in control of one’s thoughts and actions
  • Reality can seem dreamlike and unreal
  • Unable to feel joy or love, and feel emotionally numb
  • Mind constantly occupied by scary thoughts like, “Am I going crazy?”
  • Excessively concerned with questions like, “Why am I here? How do I exist? Is existence real, or is it a dream?”
  • Or experiencing a blank mind with no thoughts or inner monologue
  • Experiencing physical symptoms like blunt pressure on the forehead, disorientation, weightlessness in hands and legs, and tightness in the chest
  • Alteration in perception, like seeing visual snow or a halo around lights

You can also experience various other symptoms that are not listed here. The DP/DR experience can sometimes produce unique symptoms for a particular individual that may be absent for others.

If you’re confused about whether you experience depersonalization and derealization or not, you may educate yourself by taking a DP/DR quiz.

Major causes of depersonalization-derealization

There can be several causes or triggers of DP/DR that are unique to an individual. However, there are three major causes. Here’s a quick summary of them:

Negative reaction to cannabis or marijuana. Many people, especially teenagers, smoke marijuana or eat edibles containing cannabis, not fully realizing its potency. When they experience a strong reaction, they start panicking. This sometimes leads to a full-blown panic attack. Following that, they may feel disconnected from their environment and themselves. Most people try to sleep it off, hoping it will go away after some rest. But they wake up to find that they cannot shake off this feeling. A majority of the sufferers experience depersonalization-derealization through marijuana.

Through chronic stress. Stress can wreak havoc on your body. It disrupts the delicate balance inside us by changing the levels of certain hormones in the body, namely adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones play a vital role in our nervous system regulation. There is a clear connection between a dysfunctional nervous system and depersonalization-derealization. Some examples of chronic stress include going through a divorce, being in an abusive relationship, losing a loved one, being laid off, and sometimes, even lockdowns and other emergencies.

From trauma. Psychological trauma is a kind of damage that happens to one’s mind and body, especially one’s nervous system. Trauma can occur in childhood when we are the most vulnerable, but it is also possible to develop trauma in adulthood from a severely distressing event. The link between trauma and dissociative disorders like DP/DR is well documented.

The path to recovery from DP/DR

Recovering from DP/DR is usually a slow process consisting of the following four steps:

  • Understanding what DP/DR is
  • Feeling safe
  • Stop fighting the symptoms
  • Resolving underlying issues

Let’s look at these in detail.

Understanding what DP/DR is

You can only recover from an illness when you understand it. Many DP/DR sufferers feel confused and scared because of a lack of awareness about this illness among people, including the medical community.

To add to this problem, there’s a lot of misinformation out there stemming from online forums and hearsay, which may be keeping someone from recovering.

As one begins to understand the relationship between stress, the nervous system, and depersonalization & derealization, one can finally come to see DP/DR as a dissociative disorder. Dissociation occurs when the stress or trauma a person experiences exceeds their ability to cope with them.

With this knowledge, one can begin working to offset the stress they may be placed on themselves, which keeps fueling the DP/DR. Here are some DP/DR do’s and don’ts to follow to bring back balance to one’s stressful life.

Feeling safe

DP/DR robs us of our feeling of safety. One may feel scared and restless often. Without a clear understanding of what DP/DR is, we are thrown into the bowels of fear and panic. We conclude that we are in severe danger. This prevents us from recovering. We must overcome our fears by establishing an underlying feeling of safety. By doing so, we can see DP/DR for what it is and not be scared of its symptoms. One might falsely judge DP/DR as a threat even when it’s not. DP/DR is not a threat, but a dissociative mechanism, much like an airbag, to prevent a person from fully breaking down.

Sufferers must learn to use the resources in their lives to build this feeling of safety. Asking for help from friends and family to help them through this tough time is highly encouraged. Open up and talk about your struggles. There’s no shame in that. Reach out to psychologists, especially someone specializing in dissociative disorders. Sometimes, even a simple safety note can help you feel safe during depersonalization-derealization.

 Stop fighting the symptoms.

What if fighting the DP/DR symptoms keeps it going in the first place? Is there a better way to deal with these symptoms instead?

We instinctively fight and resist the feelings of DP/DR because they are scary and bewildering. But by doing so, we actually keep our stress levels high. By lowering stress, we can start to get rid of the DP/DR symptoms.

One must stop fighting these symptoms and instead learn to accept them and ride them out. At first, this might sound preposterous. But by consistently using the acceptance approach for DP/DR, one can finally gain the upper hand over its symptoms.

 Resolve underlying issues

Whether you are a trauma victim or someone going through a stressful time, you might have become stuck with DP/DR because of these underlying issues. One must seek ways to relieve such stressors from their life.

If you are stuck in a terrible relationship or job, then without resolving that first, you won’t be able to recover from DP/DR. If you spend most of your time indoors without a proper diet or exercise, you won’t see any progress.

See if there’s anything in your life that is out of balance. Maybe you are not even aware of what’s really bothering you. Work with a good therapist or talk to your medical doctor to learn more about your stressors and how you can fix them.

Once you fix these unresolved underlying issues, you’ll see the symptoms of DP/DR begin to fade, one by one.

I hope this article was informative. Full recovery from depersonalization-derealization is possible. I went through this hellish disorder for years but managed to successfully recover from depersonalization-derealization. Stay hopeful, stay positive, and, most importantly, be patient. You’ll get through this.

Swamy Gopalsamy is a depersonalization-derealization counselor.


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