Common treatment of derealization and depersonalization Kimberley Quinlan
Derealization & depersonalization are common experiences of anxiety. In this episode, we take a look at the definition of derealization and depersonalization. We also explore the common symptoms of derealization and depersonalization and the treatment of derealization and depersonalization. I also explore mindfulness and CBT skills to help you manage your discomfort and anxiety.
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This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 227.
Welcome back, everybody. I am so grateful to have this time with you. As you know, I promised this year would be the year I doubled down and get really into the nitty-gritty of some of the topics that people don’t talk enough about regarding anxiety. Today is so in line with that value
Today, we are talking about what is derealization and depersonalization. These are two what I would consider symptoms of anxiety. I see it all the time in my practice. I see it reported and commented all the time on Instagram. If you follow me on Instagram, we put out tons of free information there as well. This is such an important topic. And for some reason, we aren’t talking about these two topics enough.
My goal today is actually to give you a 101 on derealization and a 101 on depersonalization. We can touch upon derealization disorder and depersonalization disorder as well, but at the end, I want to give you as many tools as I can to point you in the right direction.
Before we do that, let’s do the “I did a hard thing,” because we love that, right? The “I did a hard thing” is a segment where people submit the hard things they’re doing. The main reason I do this is because, number one, you’re my family. We’re all in this together. But number two, often people, many years ago when I started the podcast, people were like, when I started saying it’s a beautiful day to do hard things, which I say all the time, a lot of people were saying, “But how hard does it have to be? And how do I handle the hard things? Can you give me an example?” And so, these have been just such a wonderful way to share how other people are doing hard things.
This one was submitted anonymously, and they said:
“I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation for a very long time. And after years of therapy, self-discovery, and lots of hard work, I’m finally accepting that I am better off in the world than out of it.”
Now I just have to take a deep breath and nearly cry because this is seriously the hard work. Sometimes when we’re talking about “I did a hard thing,” we’re talking about facing one small thing or one large thing, but I really want to honor Anonymous here and all of you who are doing this really long-term work and deep, deep work around really acknowledging how important you are and how much the world needs you in it and on it.
So anonymous, I love you. You are amazing. I have such respect for the work that you’ve done and are doing, and thank you. Again. I think we don’t talk about suicidal ideation enough either. In fact, I should really do an episode on that as well. I respect you and I’m so grateful you submitted this week.
Okay, here we go. I have some notes, which I rarely use notes for episodes, but I didn’t want to miss anything. I’ve got so much I want to share. I will do my best to break this down into, like I said, a 101, small bite-size helpful tools.
You will hear me, as I talk, taking little deep breaths and that’s because I have to practice slowing down. Just a little off-topic, when I’m doing podcasts, I get so geeked out that my brain races, and I’m all over the place and I’m talking fast and I have to slow down, “Kimberley, pump the breaks, lady.”
Let’s together take a breath... and let’s just be together.
First let’s talk about derealization. The definition of derealization is that derealization is a mental state or a psychological experience, it could also be a physiological experience, where things feel unreal. Not like, “Oh, that’s totally unreal, man. Amazing.” I’m talking where they don’t feel real. When you have derealization, you might feel detached from your surroundings. You don’t feel connected to what’s going on around you, and people and objects may also seem unreal.
Often people, when they have derealization or derealization disorder, feel like they’re going crazy. Actually, they feel like they’re going crazy. Not just the term that people use on the street. They actually feel like they’re losing touch with reality.
When we talk about derealization disorder, we’ll talk about that here in a little bit, but we could use them interchangeably. Lots of people have derealization without having the disorder, but to have derealization disorder, you have to experience derealization. So I’m including them both there.
Now the prevalence of derealization, I wanted to just give you this information because I felt it was very validating. I myself struggle with derealization and depersonalization. It was really validating for me to hear that more than half, more than 50% of people may have this disconnection from reality at least once in their lifetime. 2% of people experience it enough for it to become some kind of disorder, just like derealization disorder or even a dissociative disorder like amnesia.
If you’re concerned, you can go speak with your doctor or your therapist, or a licensed therapist for an assessment if you’re concerned about it. A lot of people who I have seen have already been to the doctor, gotten cleared. Schizophrenic is often a very big concern. People often feel that they’ve been misdiagnosed.
Now derealization is similar, but distinctly different from depersonalization, which we would talk about here soon. Some symptoms of derealization include feelings of being unfamiliar with your surroundings. You feel like you’ve never been there before, or you may feel like you’re living in a movie or a dream. You may feel emotionally disconnected from your loved ones or colleagues or friends. You just feel very numb. Like I said, you’re just very out of order. Things feel very strange. Your surroundings and the environment also may appear distorted, blurry, colorless, two-dimensional, or artificial.
I remember the first time I ever had derealization. I was sitting across from a client and I was an intern. I was very anxious. I’ve talked about this on the podcast before. I was sitting across from them and all of a sudden, their body looked like a caricature of themselves. The caricature is where their body is really small and their head is huge. I was looking at my client, trying to be a therapist, and I’m thinking what happened. All of a sudden, their neck was very, very small and short and their head looked gigantic. It looked like a drawing, not three-dimensional, but two-dimensional. And that was so concerning to me. I freaked out. I got through the session. Thankfully, again, I had tools to use. But it was really scary. It actually brought on some panic later in that evening because it didn’t go away for a little bit of time.
Now, depersonalization, the definition of depersonalization involves feeling a detachment, not from your environment like in derealization, but from your own body and your thoughts and your feelings. Think of it like it’s like you’re watching yourself from an outsider. I always say it’s like you’re flying on the wall, looking at yourself, or it’s like looking at a movie of yourself.
Now, symptoms of depersonalization include feelings that you’re an outsider observer, like I just said. You’re disconnected to your body again. Others report that it feels like they’re a robot and that they don’t have control of their movements. Again, you feel like you’re watching yourself and you don’t have control of what’s going to happen next.
Another symptom of depersonalization may include the sense that your body and legs and arm appear distorted. They may feel enlarged or shrunken. Some people report that their head is wrapped in cotton. That’s a different symptom.
Another example I always use with my patients is often when I have depersonalization, which isn’t very often anymore, is I’d look at my hand and I couldn’t tell if it was my hand or not. I didn’t feel like it was my hand. Again, really scary, can feel really concerning in the moment.
Now you may also experience some numbness, whether that’s emotional or physical. Some people say all of these symptoms are similar for derealization as well. You may feel like your memories lack emotion. Again, you’re disconnected from your own experience. So, that can be an additional symptom of depersonalization.
Now for both, I’m going to talk about them together now. For both, the duration of these symptoms may last just a few minutes, they can last a few hours. Some people, particularly if you have derealization disorder or depersonalization disorder, it can be days, weeks, and months. In that severity, I would encourage you to go and speak with a mental health provider who is trained and can assess you properly.
Now, to be diagnosed with derealization or to be diagnosed with depersonalization, there is no lab test. There’s no scan you can have. It requires a trained professional to review your symptoms and give you the diagnosis. You could probably, by listening to this, define for yourself whether you have the criteria to meet this classification. But if you’re wanting to be sure, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help to get that diagnosis.
Now, the prevalence of the struggles almost always start in late childhood or early adulthood. The statistics, this is why I have my notes today, the average age starts around 16. 95% of cases are diagnosed before the age of 25. Not always, but that has been the common statistics that they’re showing. I think that’s really helpful to know.
Now, that being said, what do you do from here? The treatment of depersonalization and derealization is often CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Basically, what we do, and this is a lot of the work that you probably already have skills if you’ve listened to a lot of the podcast episodes – a lot of it is around practicing your mindfulness tool. The first thing I want to let you know is it doesn’t mean you’re going crazy. I totally get that. It feels like you are, but it doesn’t. The good news is, when you can’t stop appraising it as “I am going crazy,” you’ll actually start to notice it’s just a really strange feeling, but it doesn’t mean anything is wrong.
I once had a teen client who told me, he said he was laughing and we were giggling together. He said, “The crazy thing is some of my friends pay a lot of money to feel this way by using drugs,” and he says, “I have it for free. I have this strange feeling, this out-of-body experience. And I don’t even have to be under the control of a drug or a substance.” He said, “When I looked at it from that perspective, I stopped appraising it as if it’s dangerous.” And that was a game-changer for him to stop appraising it as if it is a dangerous problem.
For me now, when I have derealization, it usually occurs when I’m driving. I used to panic that that meant I was going to crash. But then when I just said, “Okay, I’m just having a feeling and I’m going to let it be there.” I’m not going to do anything about it. I’m not going to judge it negatively. I’m going to allow it to rise and fall on its own. And I’m going to put all of my attention on just staying present.
Now your brain is going to say, “Yeah, but present is bad. Present is terrible. Bad things are going to happen. What if you’re going crazy?” And your job is actually to practice just letting those be thoughts, because that’s what they are. They’re thoughts. Just because you have them doesn’t mean they’re facts. Lots of people have derealization. The clients I’ve had who’ve had severe derealization and derealization and depersonalization disorder, they now say, “Yeah, it happens. No big deal. They just go about my day.”
Now in the early stages of treatment, you’re going to hate this idea, but it works, is we actually used to purposely induce this sensation so that they could practice tolerating the discomfort without responding in unhealthy ways or in compulsive ways. We would sit them down and spin them around in a chair. We would have them stare at the wall. We would have them look at really psychedelic YouTube videos where the colors and the patterns are all wavy like seventies, like psychedelic. And we would practice inducing the feeling. From there, they would practice willingly allowing the discomfort and going about their day, being gentle with themselves, engaging in the things they value. Of course, they might feel great, and that’s okay. You can slow down a little and do what you need to do.
But ultimately, when you have depersonalization and derealization, the goal is simply to do nothing at all. Crazy. When I tell my patients that, they’re like, “Oh my goodness, you’re either crazy or you’re brilliant.” By the end, usually, they say that this treatment, not me, but the treatment is brilliant, because it teaches them not to be afraid of it and not to try and live their life avoiding it.
I’ve had patients report that they’ve avoided things at great length just to avoid the experience of depersonalization and derealization. And when they avoid it, it just keeps them stuck and keeps them scared and keeps it happening more.
The other thing I will add is, do not check to see if you’re derealized or depersonalized, because just the act of checking for it, like a mental check, can actually bring on the symptoms. Now, that’s easier said than done. Am I right? Yes, it’s very hard. I know it’s easy to say, “Just stop doing that.” But if you’re engaging in a lot of checking behavior, sometimes it’s helpful to catch when you are and bring yourself back to the present, do whatever disengagement skills you can use to get you back into the present moment. Again, we don’t want to push the discomfort away, but we also don’t want to give too much hyper attention to these sensations and symptoms.
If you’re struggling with these symptoms, go and see a mental health professional. You can quiz them, ask them if they have skills in this. Look on their website, see if they’ve got any information about it that will help you to get the help that you need.
This is great. Like I said, this is what I call derealization and depersonalization 101. But there are many, many other tools that you can use to help manage this. One day I will do my best to create an online course about this that goes into detail so you have that, but for right now, I hope that this is helpful.
Now, before we finish up, I’m going to do the review of the week. We have an amazing review here from Jessrabon621 and they said:
“Amazing podcast. I absolutely love everything about this podcast. I could listen to Kimberley talk all day and her advice is absolutely amazing. I highly recommend this podcast to anyone struggling with anxiety or any other mental health professional that wants to learn more.”
Thank you, Jessrabon621. I am so grateful that I’ve helped and I’m so happy that you’ve left a review. Thank you. I love your reviews. They help me so much.
2022 is the year that I want to get a thousand reviews. If you can help, I would be so grateful. Go in wherever you’re listening, click on the reviews, leave a review. You don’t have to write something. You can just rate it. Leave an honest review. I am so, so grateful. We will be giving a pair of Beats headphones to one lucky winner by the time we hit 1,000 reviews. So I am so grateful.
Have a wonderful day, and I’ll see you next week.