What are derealisation and depersonalisation?
You may have heard the terms ‘depersonalisation’ and ‘derealisation’ used together, or heard of only one of them. Although they sound similar, they actually refer to different things. Here is a definition from the NHS’ website:
Depersonalisation is where you have the feeling of being outside yourself and observing your actions, feelings or thoughts from a distance.
Derealisation is where you feel the world around is unreal. People and things around you may seem "lifeless" or "foggy".
You can have depersonalisation or derealisation, or both together. It may last only a few moments or come and go over many years.
Have you ever felt like you’re viewing your life from a distance? Like you’re watching your life happening from the outside, but feeling everything that your body and mind is feeling? Detached from your own skin, but feeling every sense that this skin feels?
Have you ever felt like you’re living inside a dream, unsure whether you’re awake or asleep? Feeling like everything is so surreal that it can’t possibly be real, but it is happening?
This is the best way I can describe what an episode of depersonalisation/derealisation feels like for me.
When I first began experiencing derealisation, I didn’t know that was what I was experiencing; I couldn’t put a name to the feeling, I just had periods of feeling like I was in a dream and wasn’t attached to my surrounding environment. Because I didn’t know what it was that I was feeling, I assumed there was something seriously wrong with me. This became a vicious cycle – the stress from worrying that there was something wrong with me often exacerbating the symptoms of derealisation.
For me, derealisation generally happens during a panic attack or when I am feeling particularly stressed or anxious. I often know I am experiencing derealisation when I notice myself feeling extremely detached from my surroundings, whether that be my friends and family or my physical environment. As well as feeling detached from my environment, I feel detached from myself in my body. I feel very lightheaded and my head feels foggy, as if I’m in a dream.
Sometimes when experiencing derealisation, I struggle to hear things or concentrate on conversations around me. I am aware things like this can come across as rude to people who don’t understand what is going on, but it is vital that you know what you are experiencing is not dangerous and begin to learn ways to cope.
What I wish I'd known
Something I wish I had known when first experiencing derealisation is that it is my brain’s way of coping with levels of stress in the body – this means that even though it feels like a scary, out-of-body experience, it is my own body trying to protect me.
I also wish I had known that it not physically dangerous to experience derealisation – it may feel like there is something wrong, which can enhance symptoms of anxiety, but it is not physically harmful.
What helps me cope
When I am experiencing depersonalisation or derealisation, I like to listen to music to bring ground myself in reality. To help distract myself from the fear, I like to hum or sing along to the songs too. Interacting with something concrete and outside your mind can help bring you back to reality and help ease some of the symptoms you’re experiencing.
As with a panic attack, something that may help is breathing deeply. Practising deep breaths can help regulate your body back to its normal sense of rhythm and help your heart rate come back down to normal. A helpful breathing pattern to follow is to breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and breathe out for six seconds.
If you are experiencing depersonalisation or derealisation, another thing that can help bring you back to reality is to do things to try and feel your own body, so you know that you are inside yourself, instead of watching yourself. This could include clapping your hands, blinking, clenching your fists, pushing your hands against the wall, or stomping your feet on the ground. Make sure, however, that whatever movements you are doing are not harming you and that you are safe.
It is important to learn your possible triggers and the environments that you are more likely to experience derealisation in. My most significant tip for coping with derealisation is using your senses. Often when experiencing derealisation, you are so caught up in the feeling that it is important to bring yourself and your mind back to the present. An example that helps me is touching and feeling something, whether that be a fluffy blanket or running my hands under cold water to feel the sensation. Physically making an effort to feel my feet on the floor and pushing them into the ground helps me feel connected to the earth and eliminates any feelings of falling over or fainting.
Even though it is hard to bring yourself out of the feeling when experiencing derealisation, it is important to make that effort to regain a sense of attachment to the world. Breathing exercises are often good for helping you feel more connected to your own body during this time; if you follow your own breath it can help bring you back into the present.
Where to get help
If you think you might be experiencing depersonalisation or derealisation, please speak to someone you trust about it. Have a look at our advice on reaching out for help.