What is depersonalisation?
Posted by lizzie.coopersmith
15th May 2014

With anxiety and depression, and indeed all mental illnesses, come a wide variety of symptoms. But one symptom that I have personally found particularly unsettling is something called depersonalisation. It is a very difficult concept to explain to people who have never before experienced it, and even medical professionals – at least in my own experience – are either completely baffled by it, totally dismissive of it, or just don’t seem to understand, or believe, what on earth you’re trying to tell them.

It is for this reason that I want to clarify what exactly depersonalisation is. I want people to understand it, and recognise that this ‘phenomenon’ does exist, and that it is extremely distressing to live with. I’m tired of trying to explain it to people, only to have them say, ‘Well, you’re clearly just having another one of your “off” days. I’m sure it’ll go away soon’. We’re slowly (emphasis on the slowly), becoming more comfortable with talking about more commonly known symptoms of mental illnesses, like intense sadness and anxiousness, but depersonalisation? What on earth is that? We’re not going near that topic with a barge pole. That just sounds totally and utterly bizarre.

Well, yes, it is totally and utterly bizarre. Just ask anyone who’s experienced it. But that certainly doesn’t mean we can continue to ignore it.

Firstly, it is important to point out that depersonalisation should not be confused with an identity crisis. An identity crisis implies that you have a sense of self, but you’re just not sure who that self is yet, or who you want that self to be. Depersonalisation, on the other hand, is the total lack of any sense of self at all. Wikipedia defines it as ‘unreality in one’s sense of self’. It is like watching yourself performing actions, and feeling that you have absolutely no control over what you’re doing, even though you know what you’re doing, and can see yourself doing it. You just feel completely dislocated, like all your limbs are alien and don’t belong to you. You aren’t really there. You’re just sort of existing, but there’s no you. You have no anchor; the very core of your being has totally vanished. Speaking is especially strange, because your voice doesn’t sound like it belongs to you. You know what you’re saying, but you aren’t connected to it. They’re your words, but it feels like some other voice is speaking them. On top of this, depersonalisation very often causes one to feel disconnected from others. You might be looking at someone you know very well, maybe a family member you live with, and you recognise them and know the memories attached to them, but it’s like they’ve lost their meaning. You know who they are, but they no longer feel the same to you.

You can see why this is very difficult to explain. You’re there but you’re not, you exist but you don’t, you know who people are, but you don’t. The worst thing is the looks you get from people when you try and explain it to them. That alone is enough to make you feel that you have totally and utterly lost it.

I should also point out here that depersonalisation very often occurs with something called derealisation, although the two can occur independently. I have less experience with derealisation, but I will touch upon it briefly since the two symptoms are so closely linked, and tend to exacerbate one another. Derealisation is a change in how you perceive the outside world, so that it seems unreal and dream-like. Sometimes depth perception is altered, so that objects seem 2D rather than 3D. Derealisation and depersonalisation are often hard to separate out, because it’s difficult to pinpoint where the feelings of unreality come from; whether it’s the outside world or the self that feels unreal.

So, why does depersonalisation occur?

Depersonalisation, as awful as it may be, is actually a defence mechanism, which protects the most important part of you: your ‘self’. By dislocating the ‘self’ from the physical body and its actions, your body is actually protecting your core being from further harm. Although it can occur as a disorder (depersonalisation disorder, or a dissociative disorder) in its own right, depersonalisation is most commonly the result of very high anxiety levels. When anxiety levels reach such a high point, the body basically decides to ‘depersonalise’ in order to prevent the ‘self’ from being damaged by even higher anxiety levels. In theory, that’s rather clever, but in reality, depersonalisation is so distressing that all it does is cause more anxiety, which in turn makes the depersonalisation worse, which in turn makes the anxiety worse. It’s a vicious cycle.

In terms of how you can cope with depersonalisation, or how you can ease it, I honestly don’t know. I haven’t found the magic solution yet, and apparently nobody else has either. I can only think that the key must be reducing anxiety levels, since it’s most commonly caused by heightened anxiety and stress. For now, I guess all we can do is just breathe, and take one day at a time.

(After writing this blog, I discovered that there's actually a 2007 film called Numb, in which the protagonist has depersonalisation disorder. I haven't seen it yet, but I'm so interested to see how it's been portrayed in the film. Definitely watching it as soon as I can!)

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