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A First Look at Depersonalization and Derealization

kgould's picture

 A First Look at Depersonalization and Derealization

Kate Gould

            It was hard, at first, for me to do the research for this paper. Taking a close look at depersonalization and derealization, instances of disassociation, was surprisingly difficult to deal with. As someone who deals with anxiety on a day to day basis, depersonalization and derealization are no strangers to me, but I think my familiarity with the feelings and sensations of DP/DR made it all the more difficult to read about them extensively. After one long weekend of dealing with intensified symptoms of anxiety, I was able to begin my research anew. The following is what I have amassed from my readings and from my own observations of depersonalization and derealization and, as we noted in class, this accumulation of information is subject to “the Crack,” my own experiences, temperament, and behavioral patterns that make me the person I am. Purely objective it is not but, when you think about it, what observations ever are?

            It is first and perhaps most important to explain what derealization and depersonalization is, what it feels like. It is also rather difficult to put such experiences into words.

            Most concisely, derealization is described as a change in an individual’s experience of the world around them making it feel unreal and unfamiliar.

            While that might help us define DR in the context of this paper, it does not really let the reader know what it feels like. Derealization is best explained as a dream-like state, where nothing feels real, as though everything is an illusion. For all the observer knows, they may wake up at any moment; an intangible, swimmy quality lays over everything like a veil, making everything unfamiliar, much like the same feeling that persists in a dream (4).  

            Depersonalization is a little bit harder to pin down. While most people can understand “dream-like” and “unreal,” (since most people have had a dream before), not everyone has experienced depersonalization.

            The basic explanation is thus: “a change in an individuals self-awareness such that they feel detached from their own experience, with the self, the body and mind seeming alien” (1). That is, feeling as though you are no longer part of your body; that your mind and body are separated. You are only an observer of your actions.

            Imagine that you are a balloon tethered to the top of your body’s head. You can look down and see yourself, you can control your limbs, walk, interact with people and things in your environment… but at the same time, your consciousness rests above your body. It is like viewing a movie where you are the star role. This is a clumsy explanation, but perhaps some other perspectives will help clarify. Individuals have described their depersonalization events as: “unreal, disembodied, divorced from oneself, apart from everything, unattached, alone, strange, weird, foreign, unfamiliar, dead, puppet-like, robot-like, acting a part, 'like a lifeless, two dimensional, 'cardboard' figure', made of cotton-wool, having mechanical actions, remote, automated, a spectator, witnessing ones own actions as if in a film or on a TV program, not doing ones own thinking, observing the flow of ideas in the mind as independent” (1).

            It is important to note, however, that while individuals experiencing depersonalization and derealization feel disconnected from reality, they are aware of reality—what is real and what is not—they are aware that while they feel like things are not real, like they are apart from their body, that everything is as it should be (3). They pose no risk to society, as their grasp on reality remains stable at all times. 

            It should be noted that while occasional, passing feelings of DP/DR are normal, frequent or reoccurring feelings of this kind may be indicative of underlying mood or seizure disorders. Just because one may have experienced DP or DR, (or both), at some point in their life does not mean that they suffer from anxiety, depression, a seizure disorder or any other syndrome associated with stress or panic (4).

            There are many different theories about why people experience DP/DR, the most severe cases related to PTSD and traumatic events; the idea is that the mind is trying to protect itself from extreme stress—by distancing itself from the body and the environment, it is taking an extreme approach to self-preservation. But not all cases of DP/DR are that severe, where the individual loses touch with who they are, where they are, what things are. There are those who experience mild to moderate DP/DR with episodic or regular frequency, even if they have never experienced any kind of traumatic event in their lifetime. However, DP/DR is always connected to anxiety disorders of varying severity, and only individuals experiencing the most frequent and continuous episodes are diagnosed with a full-blown Depersonalization Disorder.

            The causes of DP/DR are not well understood, but are believed to be closely linked to changes in the balance of certain neurotransmitters (2). Feelings of depersonalization can be triggered by use of drugs, use of alcohol, or other medical conditions, including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

            Depersonalization and derealization rarely stand alone as a separate disorder, thus treatment is not usually directed at the DP/DR but at the underlying disorders that cause those symptoms, like major depressive disorder and anxiety and panic disorders. Treatment is usually talk or cognitive behavioral therapy, targeting the stress or anxiety that is leading to DP/DR, as well as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications if the individual is dealing with either depression, anxiety, or both in conjunction (4).  

            Recovery is possible for many individuals who suffer from DP/DR, mostly by targeting the underlying conditions that illicit such symptoms, linked to the anxiety and stress controlling parts of the brain. In many cases, after treatment, individuals can completely recover.

            There is not a lot of work on depersonalization or derealization out there, especially on a stand-alone basis. But experiences of this nature have been going on for a long time and I hope to, in the future, amend this webpaper to include a better history of disassociation, depersonalization, and derealization in the Western world.

Stay tuned.







Visitor's picture

Words to explain this disconnected feeling

Hi, I have been trying to find words to explain to my psychologist what I feel/see it's so hard to explain and it fustrates me because I want to give it words. I've been looking up derealization, de-personalization, emotional distancing.... But maybe it has some of these words that they describe but not all of them so it feels similar but different.
It's like my "normal" is almost like I see things without an emotion type connection, but I do feel inside it's like I can look at things, my family and they are there but there is like this non connection feel to them. I' m not out my body ir anthing like that, it's maybe like things are flat. What made me more aware is that since going to therapy I have what I can only explain as real moments, like my hand suddenly is real, almost as those everything comes together, what I see, how I feel, it's like it has real in it and I sense/see/connect to it, like 3d or 4d. It's happened a few times, like my hand, or looking at my husband on the couch or touching my daughters back it was like everything was "connected". Then it goes back to my normal. How do I explain that properly, I'm still not getting the correct words to explain it properly. I think it has been going on for years. I have recognised a pattern lately and that is when under extreme emotion I feel the extreme and then after abit I feel like more distant from the situation and then it becomes more managable. Like a swirch flips and you feel strange.
But I still am an enotional person inside, getting it out I battle with. I don't express extreme emotion, this whole thing is so automatic, my psychologist says the more I speak out about the feelings of things that that automatic distancing thing will start to subside. I sound crazy. It's so hard to get words, what is this. I feel disconnected from things and family but pretend I'm not. I just want to be able to explain what I am meaning.

J's picture


Well 3 months ago my best friend died in a bike crash then a week later i was sittinf on my bed and felt i was goinf out of my body ontop of my head or like i was in my head and a panicde and for 2 weeks i was like really woozy feeling like i was flouting abd from that day im not myself any more so scared the hole time and my vision is so weird and i did test my eyes and it feels like i cant think but im scared i have schizophrenia plz help

Serendip Visitor's picture

You will be ok

I am sorry to hear about your loss. I want to to know that you will be ok. Those weird feelings will subside and your state of mind will go back to normal. When a loved one is lost, existential barriers are put in front of us. We are drawn to think in ways we haven't before and feel emotions that maybe we haven't felt before. Since they are new, and signal a bit of stress, our body tries to deal with it in ways which confuse us. Just acknowledge that it will pass. It might not be from night to day, it might take a while to fully be back to the right state of mind but it will happen. The body and mind are amazing and will go back to normal. Don't be afraid to seek professional help either. You are not insane. Unfortunately people associate seeking professional help with having a serious disorder and that is just not the case. You may be surprised by how many people experience different forms of anxiety and are able to get through it.

Serendip Visitor's picture


I suffered from feelings of unreality from age 14 to 16 but hid it from other people, I was very frightened. It used to start with a feeling of panic, then I used to not be there any more. It would last for days at a time, then it was as if I gradually returned into myself. I would feel exhausted. Everything had been so far away, yet I remember those time clearly now, many years' later, Being in situations, in another world, eating but not eating, feeling but not feeling, hearing but not hearing, like when you 've been to a loud music concert, numbness! It went when I left school and started work in London. Thankyou God!! I started researching the other day and I am so glad that I found out what was wrong with me after all this time and I am not alone.

Christian's picture

Advice on coping with depersonalization

This is a very interesting paper, and an important one, considering that even now, 5 years later, DPD is still a misunderstood condition. I suffered from depersonalization for a couple of years in my twenties (quite a while ago now!), and successfully overcame it. If anyone's interested, I wrote about my experiences, and offer tips and advice on dealing with DPD, at my website Why Anxiety:

Serendip Visitor's picture



I'm currently suffering from DP/DR and I would love to get the link to your website sent to me as I'm looking to recover!


Jacqui's picture


I enjoyed reading your article, I would appreicate any more information you have on this subject as i have suffered from it off and on in my life since childhood. More recently I have been left with derealization for the last two years, eventhough I am managing and I would professionally. However there are times when I feel more distressed with the feeling and I perfer not to leave my own proximity. I suffer from Agoraphobia or a travel phobia for the last 20 years and derealization came about as a result of this.

Please keep me updated on any more research you may come about of have in relation to this and effective treatment.

Kind regards,


Jeremie Prevot's picture


I love your "text" about this problem, Internet and World have to discover that.. because i think there is a huge amount of people suffer of that in our kind of world...

Alex's picture

THANKS but HELP ME !!!!!

Please reply to this I feel like am not in my body like a dream like am not myseft I dont feel normal everytime my mind thinks about being like this for my hole life and that is never going to go away I get soo scare almost like a panic attack and start farting yes am not trying to be funny here but I cant take it anymore I get thoughs off killing myseft when this happens like I lost all hopeand that I am going to stay like this for ever I forgget things and I cant talk like I can talk but am not concentrating when am talking or that I feel out off focus disconnected from life PLESSE REPLY AM LOSSING IT I admit that I used drugs , alcohol , shish , am 16 years old I quited that shit I didnt smoke for 2 moths and this started 3 weaks from now

Tia's picture

I'm not alone.

Oh my God, i'm so HAPPY i discovered this article. i seriously thought i was alone on this. i tried to explain it to my friends and they thought that i was crazy. im so happy that i finally know EXACTLY what's been going on with me.

Gi's picture

Hoje, melhor...

É bom encontrar pessoas com quem posso compartilhar pensamentos. Sofri tantos e tantos anos com Desrealização e nunca tive respostas, nem de psiquiatras. Não sabia o que se passava comigo, achava que estava enlouquecendo, desde os 12 anos de idade, tudo se tornou estranho em 1 segundo. E veio o desespero com esse tormento mental que é a desrealização. Hoje me sinto bem melhor, depois de uma luta individual e solitária de mais de vinte anos, pois só quem passa por isso sabe como é!

Desejo sucesso aos profissionais que se preocupam com seus pacientes e se apegam a pesquisas para alcançarem melhoras.

Desejo às pessoas que sofrem de DP/DR que tenham forças e consigam sair dessa!


Shop Girl's picture


I believe I have used these and simular excape mechanisms from an early age. One of my earliest memories is of walking along in circular motions while repeating words or phrases.

I now find myself experiencing triggers to earlier events. These triggers and vivid or even possibly lucid dreams, have become a part of my life. They began after involvment in an auto acccident which found me with a diagnosis of PTSD.

On two seperate occasions, I have engaged in therapy. unfortunately, only to realize my need to discontinue the sessions after physcotropic's were prescribed.

It has been a pleasant experience to read the information available at Serendip.

Paul Grobstein's picture

why are some things unreal?

I too am glad to have this subject opened up as a topic in its own right.  Yes, I suspect its been neglected "on a stand-alone basis."  And it raises a number of interesting questions about brain function in general.  What is involved in a sense that one's self and one's surroundings are "real" as opposed to observed but not real?  And what is the relation between the latter and stress/anxiety?  My guess is that stress/anxiety are as likely to be a result of depersonalization/derealization as a cause of it.  And that, like anxiety, depersonalization/derealization can arise spontaneously as well as be triggered by traumatic events.  Richard Power's novel, The Echo Maker, is an interesting exploration of a particular form of derealization called Capgras syndrome. 

Tiffany's picture

thank you

Thank you writing this. I found it through google. You have done a great job. I have been suffering from some of this and was looking for someone who could relate. Thank you for letting me know that I am not alone.

kgould's picture

Thank you very much. I know

Thank you very much. I know that I feel better knowing that there are other people out there experiencing the same things--that I'm not alone.

In the process of researching for this paper, I found this forum which, at the very least, provided some contact with other DP/DR individuals. Check it out.

And good luck. :)

DCR's picture

I have DP/DR often

I glad to see this information. I have DP/DR 1-2 times a week and have for many years. Sometimes I enjoy it as it provides me with more creative freedom. Other times it causes me anaxity as it makes me less productive at work and a bit introverted. It would be nice to be able to turn it off and on, but that is not possible. Over the years I have just learned to enjoy the ride and try not to stress out about it. I think that many people experence this and do not even know it.