Imagine feeling like everyone you know, everything around you, everything you are thinking and feeling is fake. That what you are experiencing can’t be trusted. And instead being in the here-and-now, you feel like a detached observer, watching yourself from a disconnected vantage point and there’s no way for you to reconnect yourself and reality. No, this isn’t the plot of Christopher Nolan’s movie Inception. This is a real phenomenon that people deal with everyday. And before you start thinking the experience sounds kind of cool, I can assure you, its not.
Feeling disconnected from reality is an awful experience. When you don’t feel connected to your body or thoughts it can feel like your not in control of yourself, like your detached from reality. In other words, you feel like you can’t trust yourself and your surrounding, as if you are losing yourself. Clinical terms used to describe this experience are:
- Depersonalization- An internal feeling of disconnection from oneself, i.e. self-estrangement.
- Derealization- An external feeling of disconnection from one’s surroundings,
- Dissociation- Detachment from physical and emotional experience.
Depersonalization, derealization and dissociation (what I’ll call going forward “DDD”) have been informally described as a psychotic break, feeling numb, an out of body experience, or disconnection from reality. The experience of DDD can be short term, lasting a few minutes, or, it can be long-term, lasting years. The experience can be so disorienting that some have committed suicide. Typically, DDD is associated with psychoses, however, people suffering from severe depression, PTSD, Bipolar disorder, drug intoxication, and some personality disorders can cause DDD.
There is a caveat worthy of mention regarding DDD. In a way, DDD can have a survival function. What do I mean by that? When people are experiencing intense trauma, i.e. domestic violence and abuse, rape, warfare, a violent attack and so on, the brain will detach from first-person experience and shift one’s perception to that of an observer. And, in some regards, this is a preferable perceptual vantage point than the first-person experience. Think of it, would you want to experience every moment, every pain, every rush of fear, terror, shock and horror of being raped? No, of course not. You’d much rather be detached from the experience. The true horror is when someone doesn’t detach, and they experience every excruciating moment of their trauma.
That being said, the experience of DDD in non-trauma situations, that which is persistent and chronic, can make life near impossible. What was once adaptive in a survival situation, becomes maladaptive in normal life. Normal life is filled with emotional experiences, good and bad, that are appropriate to feel. But DDD sabotages normal emotional experience, so that, when you are experiencing joy, pleasure, contentment, happiness, closeness and excitement, the feelings are quickly anesthetized, and replaced with a numb feeling. DDD is an emotional killer. Emotions are critical for healthy functioning. In other words, without emotion you cannot process grief, learn from experience and feel the joys of life.
Also, those suffering from DDD experience intense anxiety because they don’t know when an episode of DDD will hit them. And, in fact, the anxiety of not wanting to experience DDD can actually trigger an experience of DDD. This is a vicious cycle that overwhelms and ensnares the DDD sufferer.
So, what can you do if you suffer from DDD? Is there hope? Are there solutions, techniques, and approaches that can help? In short, yes, there is hope. There are things you can do, behaviorally, to help yourself. And, there are professionals that can provide you with counseling and medication that effectively treat DDD.
First things first, I’d first recommend seeing a psychologist to get a mental health evaluation. Based on their assessment, you can see a psychiatrist to get evaluated and prescribed medication that can help. In terms of behavioral interventions that can help you feel grounded and centered, here are my suggestions:
- Self-Observation: Now, this may seem like an ironic suggestion since part of the problem is feeling like your an observer. But the point of this is to make first-person observations. Those first-person observations are very grounding. They relocate you in the here-and-now. Self-observations also have to do with recognition. If you can recognize that you are having a DDD episode, you can then intervene on yourself to change your experience. But, this is not possible unless you have awareness of what’s happening.
- Stay Calm: Once you’ve recognized you are having a DDD episode, don’t panic. Panic is like cement for DDD. If you can remain calm after becoming aware of the DDD episode, you are more likely to work your way out of it.
- Radical Acceptance: When you try fighting against DDD, you are actually giving it energy. DDD feeds off of your resistance. Instead, accept that you are having a DDD moment. It’s okay to feel numb, or detached. It’s not the end of the world. You can work your way out of it.
- Positive Self-Talk: After accepting the fact that you are having a DDD moment, talk to yourself in a positive manner. Think of it like this, what would you tell your best friend if they were having a DDD moment? You’d probably say something like “Its going to be okay,” “You are safe,” “This isn’t going to last for forever,” “Stay calm,” “This will be over soon,” and “There’s hope.” Use those same positive messages, but with yourself. In fact, I’d recommend making these positive self-talk statements to yourself throughout the day so that you are prepared for a DDD episode.
- Self-Soothing: This concept comes from child developmental psychology. The idea is rather simple, when you are feeling emotionally flooded, regulate your feelings by soothing yourself. So, for example, when a baby is crying and finds their thumb, that is self-soothing. Obviously, I’m not suggesting you start sucking your thumb, but, I do suggest you develop some self-soothing strategies such as deep breathing, physical exercise, watching a favorite TV-show, eating chocolate, talking to a friend and so on. The self-soothing plan can be as unique and particular to you as you want it. If something works, then do it, just as long as you are not harming yourself or another person.
Hopefully, this information is helpful. Please do yourself a favor and do not ignore DDD. It is a mental illness that steals joy and can lead to suicide. However, it is not permanent. There are effective treatments for DDD. Seeing a counselor, working with a psychiatrist, taking medication and using the tips provided above can help. With effort, over time, you will see change.