Feeling disconnected from reality, known as depersonalisation disorder, can be your mind’s way of coping with stress and anxiety.
Do you ever feel like you are suddenly outside of yourself, as if you are living in a dream or watching yourself in a movie? This sense of feeling not quite real and as though you are disconnected from both your body and the world around you can be alarming.
Known as depersonalisation disorder, these feelings of detachment are your mind’s way of coping in situations of extreme stress: it’s as though your mind has flicked an ‘off’ switch, to help protect itself.
But while you may feel very isolated in these moments, depersonalisation disorder is actually a fairly common symptom of anxiety, and fortunately there are a number of ways you can learn to address these feelings and come back to yourself:
Do you have depersonalisation disorder?
Depersonalisation disorder (DPD) is a common psychiatric condition said to affect up to 2 per cent of the population, so around 1.3 million people in the UK are believed to feel this way at any one time.
For people with depersonalisation disorder, experiencing a sense of complete detachment as if you are living on autopilot is common. As a result, depersonalisation can interfere with a person’s everyday life, including relationships, work and social activities.
Depersonalisation disorder is your mind’s way of coping in situations of extreme stress.
It’s possible you may be suffering with depersonalisation disorder if you find yourself experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Feeling as though you are watching yourself in a movie
- Feeling as though you have lost all sense of ‘self’
- Feeling as if the world around you is unreal – like it’s a dream
- Feeling disconnected from or ‘outside’ your own body
- Not recognising yourself in mirrors
- Seeing physical objects as fluid forms, that change shape or colour
- Feeling as though loved ones and friends are strangers
Getting help for depersonalisation disorder
While depersonalisation disorder is not a dangerous condition, it can be highly distressing – as can the anxiety and panic attacks that it stems from.
Depersonalisation episodes are usually brief, but it is considered to be a disorder if symptoms cause substantial distress or impact your ability to function normally.
If you have been experiencing any of the sensations above, it’s important to make an appointment with your GP. They may be able to make a formal diagnosis, depending on your symptoms and experiences, and will be able to refer you for the appropriate treatment, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Depersonalisation disorder self-help tips
If you suddenly find yourself in the grips of anxiety or feel a panic attack coming on, or if you feel you are starting to dissociate from yourself, there are some simple steps you can take to help ease the panic and ground yourself more fully in the present moment.
Nick Davies, a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, offers the following expert advice on overcoming depersonalisation disorder:
1. Loosen your body
As soon as you recognise the symptoms, for example, shortness of breath, fast heart rate, shaking or a feeling of detachment, make your body go as loose, limp and floppy as possible.
Sit back in your chair or lie down, and relax every muscle from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes.
This essential step is not easy, as your anxiety doesn’t want to lose its grip on you, so it will bombard you with irrational thoughts, to get you moving and panicking. But ignore every thought and instead focus on this physical relaxation.
2. Breathe deeply
It’s important to breathe diaphragmatically during times of panic, as this activates the parasympathetic nervous system in the brain, which is responsible for returning the body to rest, relaxation and recovery.
Instead of breathing where you expand your chest and lift your shoulders, push your stomach out to breathe all the way down to the bottom of your lungs in a deep and full inhale. Hold the breath and then ‘dump’ the breath, as if you’re letting out a loud sigh, completely exhaling. Continue for ten breaths.
Focus all your attention onto a single point on the wall or ceiling while you are doing your breathing, until your peripheral vision begins to blur. This is a sign that you are in a state of ‘eyes open meditation’ and it can help to ground you in the present moment.
4. Use affirmations
With your eyes either still open or gently closed, repeat the following phrases five times each in your mind, slowly: ‘I am calm and relaxed’; ‘I am safe and well’; ‘I’ve got through this before and will again’.
Mental health support
If you think you might have depersonalisation disorder or have any concerns about your mental health, your first port of call should be your GP.
For additional support, try one of the following resources:
- Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
- The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
- Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
- CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.