The disorder is usually triggered by severe stress, particularly emotional abuse or neglect during childhood, or other major stresses (such as experiencing or witnessing physical abuse).
Feelings of detachment from self or the surroundings may occur periodically or continuously.
After tests are done to rule out other possible causes, doctors diagnose the disorder based on symptoms.
Psychotherapy Psychotherapy Extraordinary advances have been made in the treatment of mental illness. As a result, many mental health disorders can now be treated nearly as successfully as physical disorders. Most treatment... read more , especially cognitive-behavioral therapy, is often helpful.
(See also Overview of Dissociative Disorders Overview of Dissociative Disorders Occasionally everyone has minor problems integrating their memories, perceptions, identity, and consciousness. For example, people may drive somewhere and then realize that they do not remember... read more .)
Temporary feelings of depersonalization and/or derealization are common. About one half of people have felt detached from themselves (depersonalization) or from the surroundings (derealization) at one time or another. This feeling often occurs after people
Experience life-threatening danger
Take certain drugs (such as marijuana Marijuana Marijuana (cannabis) is a drug made from the plants Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica that contain a psychoactive chemical called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Marijuana... read more , hallucinogens Hallucinogens Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that cause profound distortions in people's perceptions. Hallucinogens distort and intensify sensations, but the actual effects are variable and unpredictable... read more , ketamine Ketamine and Phencyclidine (PCP) Ketamine and phencyclidine are chemically similar drugs used for anesthesia but are sometimes used recreationally. Ketamine is available in powder and liquid form. The powder can be snorted... read more , or Ecstasy Hallucinogens Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that cause profound distortions in people's perceptions. Hallucinogens distort and intensify sensations, but the actual effects are variable and unpredictable... read more )
Become very tired
Are deprived of sleep or sensory stimulation (as may occur when they are in an intensive care unit)
Depersonalization or derealization can also occur as a symptom in many other mental disorders, as well as in general medical disorders, such as seizure disorders Seizure Disorders In seizure disorders, the brain's electrical activity is periodically disturbed, resulting in some degree of temporary brain dysfunction. Many people have unusual sensations just before a seizure... read more .
Depersonalization/derealization feelings are considered a disorder when the following occur:
Depersonalization or derealization occurs on its own (that is, it is not caused by drugs or another mental disorder), and it persists or recurs.
The symptoms are very distressing to the person or make it difficult for the person to function at home or at work.
Depersonalization/derealization disorder occurs in about 2% of the population and affects men and women equally.
The disorder may begin during early or middle childhood. It rarely begins after age 40.
Depersonalization/derealization disorder often develops in people who have experienced severe stress, including the following:
Being emotionally abused or neglected during childhood
Being physically abused
Witnessing domestic violence
Having had a severely impaired or mentally ill parent
Having had a loved one die unexpectedly
Symptoms can be triggered by severe stress (for example, due to relationships, finances, or work), depression Depression A short discussion of prolonged grief disorder. Depression is a feeling of sadness and/or a decreased interest or pleasure in activities that becomes a disorder when it is intense enough to... read more , anxiety Overview of Anxiety Disorders Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, worry, or unease that is a normal human experience. It is also present in a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder,... read more , or use of illegal or recreational drugs Illicit Drugs and Intoxicants . However, in 25 to 50% of cases, stresses are relatively minor or cannot be identified.
Symptoms of depersonalization/derealization disorder may start gradually or suddenly. Episodes may last for only hours or days or for weeks, months, or years. Episodes may involve depersonalization, derealization, or both.
The intensity of symptoms often waxes and wanes. But when the disorder is severe, symptoms may be present and remain at the same intensity for years or even decades.
Depersonalization symptoms involve
Feeling detached from one's body, mind, feelings, and/or sensations
People may also say they feel unreal or like an automaton, with no control over what they do or say. They may feel emotionally or physically numb. Such people may describe themselves as an outside observer of their own life or the “walking dead.”
Derealization symptoms involve
Feeling detached from the surroundings (people, objects, or everything), which seem unreal
People may feel as if they are in a dream or a fog, or as if a glass wall or veil separates them from their surroundings. The world seems lifeless, colorless, or artificial. The world may appear distorted to them. For example, objects may appear blurry or unusually clear, or they may seem flat or smaller or larger than they are. Sounds may seem louder or softer than they are. Time may seem to be going too slow or too fast.
The symptoms almost always cause great discomfort. Some people find them intolerable. Anxiety and depression are common. Many people are afraid that the symptoms result from irreversible brain damage. Many worry about whether they really exist or repeatedly check to determine whether their perceptions are real.
Stress, worsening depression or anxiety, new or overstimulating surroundings, and lack of sleep can make symptoms worse.
Symptoms are often persistent. They may
Recur in episodes (in about one third of people)
Occur continuously (in about one third)
Become continuous (in about one third)
People often have great difficulty describing their symptoms and may fear or believe that they are going crazy. However, people always remain aware that their experiences of detachment are not real but rather are just the way that they feel. This awareness is what separates depersonalization/derealization disorder from a psychotic disorder. People with a psychotic disorder always lack such insight.
A doctor's evaluation
Sometimes tests to rule out other possible causes
Doctors suspect the disorder based on symptoms:
People have episodes of depersonalization, derealization, or both that last a long time or recur.
People know that their dissociative experiences are not real.
People are very distressed by their symptoms or their symptoms make them unable to function in social situations or at work.
A physical examination and sometimes tests are done to rule out other disorders that could cause the symptoms, including other mental health disorders, seizure disorders Seizure Disorders In seizure disorders, the brain's electrical activity is periodically disturbed, resulting in some degree of temporary brain dysfunction. Many people have unusual sensations just before a seizure... read more , and substance abuse Overview of Substance-Related Disorders Medications and other substances, whether used for legitimate medical purposes, as a habit (for example, caffeine), or recreationally, are an integral part of everyday life for many people ... read more . Tests may include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), electroencephalography (EEG), and blood and urine tests to check for drugs.
Psychologic tests and special structured interviews and questionnaires can also help doctors with the diagnosis.
Complete recovery is possible for many people with depersonalization/derealization disorder, especially if the symptoms result from stresses that can be dealt with during treatment. Other people do not respond well to treatment, and the disorder becomes chronic. In some people, depersonalization/derealization disorder disappears on its own.
Symptoms, even those that persist or recur, may cause only minor problems if people can keep their mind busy and focus on other thoughts or activities, rather than think about their sense of self. However, some people become disabled because they feel so disconnected from their self and their surroundings or because they also have anxiety or depression.
Sometimes antianxiety drugs and antidepressants
Depersonalization/derealization disorder may disappear without treatment. People are treated only if the disorder persists, recurs, or causes distress.
Psychodynamic psychotherapy Psychotherapy Extraordinary advances have been made in the treatment of mental illness. As a result, many mental health disorders can now be treated nearly as successfully as physical disorders. Most treatment... read more and cognitive-behavioral therapy have been effective for some people. Depersonalization/derealization disorder is often associated with or triggered by other mental health disorders (such as anxiety Overview of Anxiety Disorders Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, worry, or unease that is a normal human experience. It is also present in a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder,... read more or depression Depression A short discussion of prolonged grief disorder. Depression is a feeling of sadness and/or a decreased interest or pleasure in activities that becomes a disorder when it is intense enough to... read more ), which require treatment. Any stresses that triggered the symptoms or that may have contributed to development of depersonalization/derealization disorder must also be addressed.
Techniques that can help include the following:
Cognitive techniques can help block obsessive thinking about the unreal state of being.
Behavioral techniques can help people become absorbed in tasks that distract them from the depersonalization.
Grounding techniques use the five senses (hearing, touch, smell, taste, and sight) to help people feel more connected to themselves and the world. For example, loud music is played or a piece of ice is put in the hand. These sensations are difficult to ignore, making people aware of themselves in the present moment.
Psychodynamic techniques focus on helping people work through intolerable conflicts, negative feelings, and experiences that people feel they must detach themselves from.
Moment-to-moment tracking and labeling of dissociation and affect (the outward expression of emotions and thoughts) teaches people to recognize and identify their feelings of dissociation. Such recognition helps some people. This technique also helps people focus on what is actually happening in the moment.
Various drugs have been used to treat depersonalization/derealization disorder, but none has been proved to be effective. Antianxiety drugs Treatment Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, worry, or unease that is a normal human experience. It is also present in a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder,... read more and antidepressants Drug Treatment for Depression Agomelatine, a new type of antidepressant, is a possible treatment for major depressive episodes. Several types of drugs can be used to treat depression: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors... read more sometimes help, mainly by relieving anxiety or depression, which are present in many people with depersonalization/derealization disorder. However, antianxiety drugs may also increase depersonalization or derealization, so doctors carefully monitor use of these drugs.