No More Derealization: How to Permanently Recover From Dissociative Anxiety
What Is Derealization Disorder?
Life is hard enough when you're not standing in front of your mirror, panicked, wondering why your face and surroundings appear cartoon-like.
Many people who suffer from some form of anxiety (generalized anxiety or panic disorder) develop dissociative symptoms. These include feelings of unreality that we refer to as 'derealization', which cause the sufferer to feel as if they are in a completely dreamlike state, surrounded by an unfamiliar world in which they can no longer find any form of solace. In the face of such intrusive and scary symptoms, many people worry that they are developing schizophrenia or psychosis and about to 'lose control' of their mind.
After all, derealization feels psychedelic by nature; when it hits, it is nearly impossible to believe that it is just an illusion created by anxiety and not something much, much more insidious that will eventually render you unable to function. However, I am writing this hub to promise you that, in your current state of extreme vulnerability and fear, that this is not the case.
Through mastering the art of managing your mental diet and swerving yourself away from delusions, you can snap out of this trance and see reality as you once saw it again. I have experienced prolonged bouts of this symptom, created by a combination of severe anxiety and a propensity to hyperfocus and obsess (OCD tendencies). In terms of coping mechanisms, I am now very aware of what works and what doesn't work. I will address all of the myths about derealization and share the techniques that helped me overcome this terrifying symptom.
What Triggers Anxiety-Induced Dissociation?
I will not deeply delve into neurochemistry, as I want this hub to be accessible to anyone who wants to rapidly recover from derealization. However, dealing with prolonged anxiety results in hormonal and chemical changes that can trigger dissociation. You see, dissociation is a natural response to anxiety and is undoubtedly biologically-advantageous in response to a genuine threat. Being able to mentally 'check out' probably once conferred our ancestors with the ability to hunt and defend their families in scary, adverse conditions. Unfortunately, depersonalization/derealization is nothing more than an eerie hindrance in modern-day life.
Some of us seem more prone to dissociation than others, first experiencing it at work during a presentation, or the night before an exam. Since we are often also panic-attack-prone, it is likely that a sensitive amygdala is partly to blame. Others need a severe physiological stressor to cross the necessary anxiety threshold, whether it be a violent mugging or an unpleasant drug experience (hence, dissociation frequently presents in PTSD). Irrespective of their origins, the sensations are designed to linger for a few days at most before dissipating.
Why Do Some People Develop Chronic Derealization?
Being naturally inquisitive and perceptive can be a double-edged sword in the face of dissociation; in short, logical realists are less likely to deal with prolonged episodes.
If the sufferer is not particularly interested in spiritual or philosophical matters, they may experience dissociation as nothing more than a fleeting symptom. I was fascinated to speak to a friend who felt it for the first time after breaking her leg badly. She reported feeling 'drugged' and as if she was watching herself on television, yet these feelings only lasted for 3 days because she has no affinity for introspection, nor an interest in questioning reality. She simply carried on with her day, rather than indulging the loop of fear and existentialism that leads people like us into hysterics.
Little is known about the precise neurobiological basis of chronic derealization (i.e. dissociation that lasts implausibly long), but it is inextricably linked to the ability to enter hyper-focused thinking states. In addition to anxiety, much obsession is involved in the constant pondering over whether you are living 'in real-life or a dream'. For this reason, OCD tendencies are certainly a prerequisite to a sustained episode of dissociative anxiety. Psychiatric labels aside, the profile of a derealization sufferer can be wrapped up as follows: an anxiety-prone, cerebral deep-thinker. The former trait allows for the sensations of unreality to occur following panic, while the latter two beget the deep rumination and questioning of the feelings that actually intensifies them.
Do you believe that derealization can be overcome?
Feelings Are Transient, So Don't Fixate
Based on my neuroscience background and my personal experience (as well as extensive open-minded research), I can confidently say that derealization is caused by an abnormal obsession with dissociation and unreality. Mild levels of dissociation are perfectly normal. After all, to have a human brain is to experience some strange sensations from time to time. This is because we are never as 'fixed' in reality as we think; our brains create what we call 'reality'. This means that when neurotransmitters are offset due to stress, or adrenaline is acting on the body, it is common for us to feel some 'floaty' sensations, or to begin to feel that we are perceiving the world differently to normal. We are perceiving it differently, and that is okay. That shouldn't scare us, and rest assured, it won't spiral out of control and render you unable to live/speak/work. The key is to release the expectation that the world will appear identical every hour, since you have a brain that is constantly being altered by stress levels, external stimulation, thoughts and the food you're consuming.
This is because our brain's physicality is changing immutably, and therefore, the way that we view the world will naturally ebb and flow too (just as simply drinking coffee can make the world seem more beautiful and bright).
Caffeine causing some temporary jitters or sharpening your perception probably does not concern you, because you know that the stimulant effects are temporary and consumption is within your active control. You will soon realize that derealisation disappears when you commit to proactive recovery and abstain from all mystical thinking, so it is less out of your control than you might currently fear.
Intrusive Thoughts: Without Obsession, There Is No Derealization Disorder
To clarify, you live in your head now and get yourself into obsessive spirals, but are in no way 'too psychologically damaged to cope', even after years of severe anxiety. Learned behavioral patterns can be altered, the brain can be profoundly rewired (Donald Hebb, 1949: "neurons that fire together wire together"). You have the potential to thrive with your unique brain, just as you did when you were very young and felt safe within the physical world.
Just because you're physiologically prone to spacey, light-headed dissociation and tend to focus intently on the way that you're viewing the world doesn't mean that you have to experience derealization disorder and panic attacks. You can treat the obsessive element of your psyche your own and become truly free, even without the intervention of professionals. I have managed it, and believe me, I once believed that I had lost my entire life to questioning whether I had been immersed in a simulation.
No, You Are Not Developing Schizophrenia
Derealization is terrifyingly far from your normal, baseline state. You feel like you're intoxicated constantly, and that you will surely never be able to snap out of something so strange. You would do anything to experience the simple things in life again, and to feel within reality.
Understand this: derealization occurs when an anxiety-prone person becomes obsessively terrified with the peculiar concept of not being able to see reality normally, because we believe that our reality is changing and will eventually be almost completely psychedelic and unrecognizable. This is a falsehood. The very fact that you are aware of this symptom means that you are not developing psychosis and schizophrenia. When developing those disorders, people slowly lose their sense of self and wouldn't be able to rationally question whether they were viewing reality normally or not, Plus, these severe illnesses come with a lot more symptoms e.g. delusions and aggression.
Everyone feels spaced-out and floaty when tired, notices pretty colors more after caffeine, and everyone feels slightly wobbly when unwell. The difference between us and these neurotypical people who will never even consider that they may have something as strange as 'derealization disorder' is that we obsess. We hyperfocus and chase scary thoughts down paths, and evolution has not conferred us with the ability to easily snap out of such a behavioral pattern. This is why mental discipline and control over which thoughts you allow to imprint on your subconscious is of insurmountable importance.
Remember Your Life Before This Obsession
I will delve a little further into the concept of 'normal dissociation', and how it is linked to the problem of derealization. Think back to when you were a child chasing your sibling across the beach, and you were completely lost to the innocent game, the noises and the smell of the sea. In this excited, adrenaline-fuelled state, if you had possessed the obsessive and adult-level thinking that you do now, you may would have looked around and felt quite out-of-body and 'in a simulation'. This would have panicked you, causing more adrenaline to be released, making your body respond as if it were in danger. This, in turn, would have worsened the derealization, probably causing you to worry about developing things like psychosis and schizophrenia. You wouldn't have found relief back at home (since you can't run away from your own thought spirals), and would likely have woken up the next day, nervous, causing the re-triggering of dissociation.
However, back then you were a child and not a fear-paralyzed adult and didn't have internet access to google symptoms. You were not aware of severe mental illnesses that you could, in theory, be developing, and also were not even aware that anyone could feel detached from the world. You enjoyed your mild dissociation, the floatiness that you felt when listening to music, and felt that it was harmless, because it is harmless.
You were in the dopamine-rich stage of childhood and were constantly and healthily being distracted by interesting stimuli within reality e.g. food, animals, your friends, your parents' discipline. This meant that, even though you experienced natural dissociation as a child in times of panic and exhilaration and you possessed the same genes that you have now (which make you prone to fixation), you never went down the path that leads to derealization disorder.
Beliefs that you will 'never see the world normally again' are falsehoods, and subscribing to philosophical schools of thought like solipsism only adds insult to injury.
Reality Isn't Fixed For Anyone; Some Strangeness Is Normal!
It is comforting to know that derealization is simply a result of anxiety and unnecessary fear/focus, but this may seem unconvincing to you. You might want to tell me "you say I'm not going psychotic, but surely something is very wrong.". If you feel that way, then I want you to do a lot of research on the changeability of our perception of reality. The concept of a fixed, stable perception of the world is totally unfounded and improbable. Diet, medication, hormones and neurotransmitters change your sober reality constantly, and your mood.
Do not think for one minute that you are 'tripping out' and surrounded by people who are judging you through a crystal-clear reality lense. Everyone around you will have something clouding their view of 'objective consensus reality', whether it be a bad hangover or the fact that they are rushing to collect their cat from the vet.
In addition to mildly-altered states being very normal in day-to-day scenarios, remember that many people actively choose to take drugs that warp their reality immensely and they enjoy these experiences. Unless they are psychosis or anxiety-prone, people who take LSD lose all contact with the 'normal reality' that they are accustomed to yet step out unharmed. A bad trip will occur only when the user cannot not accept the temporarily absurd world view that they are being presented with.
A changed reality is not necessarily a negative thing, it just 'is', and is something you must become comfortable with. If you're anxious, you will be producing a lot of adrenaline which acts on nearly all the body's cells. It also disrupts cortisol levels and can lead to hormonal syndromes such as adrenal fatigue. None of these are particularly harmful, but they will affect the levels of chemicals in your brain and they will lead to some dissociative feelings/will make you see reality differently to how you did before you became so consumed by anxiety.
So, how is your brain creating such a strange phenomenon? Because it's not hard to change the way that you see the world. Try getting blackout drunk and you'll start to see blurry shapes. That's essentially your reality changing, just as it does when you obsess over derealization. Does it harm you? No, it's just symptomatic of drinking alcohol. Altered realities are a byproduct of living life; we all see the world in different ways as we go about our day.
The Only Way To Permanently Overcome Derealization and Depersonalization
- Logically think back to all the times that you've felt intensely derealized in public or in another scary situation. You felt like you were falling down a slippery slope and about to be sucked into a cartoon show, but that level of insanity never happened, right? You were always fine. The worst it gets is thinking "this is weird and unpleasant, I want this feeling to go away". The panic attacks only happen when you indulge yourself and let yourself fall deeper in that direction. Direct yourself away from panic each time. I've done it at my worst and so can you.
- Stop thinking that you need to 'assess' whether reality appears normal or strange each day. This is exactly the kind of thinking that obsessive people like us fall into, but all it will do is worsen the situation. Remember, derealization is only something you chronically experience because you're so strangely worried about whether things are 'real' or not.
- However reality looks, you need to just go with the flow. Tell yourself "reality just is, it isn't fixed". Something that really helped me was to think "if I were stoned right now, I wouldn't be scared, I'd be enjoying the altered reality". And, when people are stoned, they get by fine in public, just walking alone at their own pace immersed in their own perception of the world. You can do the same in your dissociated state, as nothing bad will ever happen.
- Realize you are alone in your feelings, but instead of finding that scary, use it to motivate you to relax, and to stop feeding existential, spiritual or nihilistic thoughts. Nobody telling you that you're okay will magic this state away. You need to feel it for yourself by remembering that 1. the derealization doesn't hurt you and that 2. after time, you create new pathways away from the unhealthy fixation on reality and it actually goes away (often quickly).
- Stop thinking of it as your 'derealization issue'. That introduces the false notion that you're either in sober reality OR you're in some dreamlike trance, when it's quite the contrary. As I've explained, reality isn't ever the same, so it can't be 'right' or 'wrong' in this way. It's just a wide spectrum and we all experience the same moments in very different ways, due to food, caffeine, emotion, fear etc. Stop yourself stepping out of the house and thinking "today it's either going to be normal or scary dream state", since that is going to make recovery impossible.
DPDR Rule: Quit Coffee, and Start Drinking Matcha Green Tea
Matcha green tea greatly reduced my derealization/depersonalization anxiety symptoms, possibly due to L-Theanine's calming, synergistic action with caffeine. I am not one to promote excessive supplements, as they can often add insult to injury when it comes to mental health (specifically anxiety). However, matcha green tea is absolutely fantastic at calming the mind and letting you reach a gently-stimulated state of relaxation.
Nowadays, I still experience hints of dissociation; while I now know how to accept the sensations and avoid a full-blown panic attack, matcha remarkably lowers my baseline level of anxiety and seems to quieten my obsessive thoughts. I urge you all to quit coffee (if you rely on it for energy) and start drinking matcha/green tea instead. Coffee is extremely unsuitable for people prone to OCD thoughts and anxiety and wreaks havoc on the adrenal glands.
It took me a while to re-locate this particular product, but to the tea that I use with great success (it's also delicious!). If anyone tries it, I'd love to hear about how it's affected your mental state and whether it's also helped you accept intermittent dissociation (which, in turn, lessens its frequency). here is the link
N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC)
As a neuroscientist, I am constantly researching supplements and 'biohacks'. Many are effective at treating anxiety-based conditions but come with side effects, yet NAC (a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory) can be taken long-term without issues. A naturally-occurring amino acid, it is extremely effective at stabilizing the neurotransmitter dysfunctions that contribute to OCD thought-loops and derealization. I am very sensitive to medications and supplements, yet have noticed nothing but a sustained improvement in my anxiety since starting to take NAC. In fact, I no longer experience panic attacks at all and feel that my brain is working fluidly and normally.
5-HTP and Dissociation: A Miracle For Some People
Please don't get caught up in the supplement game, but do also consider trying . As the direct precursor to the infamous neurotransmitter serotonin, 5-HTP is known for its mood-stabilizing and calming properties. An imbalance in serotonin is nearly always implicated in the anxiety-related illnesses that might cause someone to develop dissociative symptoms (e.g. panic disorder and OCD). Hence, safely and mildly boosting systemic serotonin concentrations can significantly decrease the incidence of scary dissociative symptoms in many people. 5-HTP
There is no need to always take 5-HTP - I only use it during periods of my life when I feel my anxiety-induced dissociation is creeping back and beginning to affect me again.
As it is the precursor to melatonin and can induce mild sleepiness, it is best to take right before bed on an empty stomach. It provides relatively rapid relief and quietens neurotic thought loops (within 5 days), as well as improving your quality of sleep and emotional stability.
What Are The Benefits of Experiencing Derealization?
I truly believe that there is nothing as scary as the experience of derealization and consequent panic attacks. It really is living in terror, to a greater extent than schizophrenia or psychosis in some ways because there is complete lucidity (this alone proves that it is NOT going to progress into those conditions, so worry not). You are completely aware of how you 'should' be experiencing reality, and this allows intense fixation and anxiety when everything seems strange.
If you can get through the worst points of anxiety-induced derealization, then nothing within reality should really scare or upset you. If you find yourself upset about friendship issues, work or illness, you can remind yourself that the fact that you're worrying about these things means that you are within reality and no longer dealing with derealization issues. You should feel grateful and blessed to be free from something you've suffered so badly with.
In some ways, derealization shows you exactly how scary it is when the brain glitches in a way that we are not mentally equipped to deal with. Experiencing it can and should put you off using drugs, as you clearly possess a sensitive hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.
Mainly, however, experiencing derealization is an insanely interesting experience, akin to something like lucid dreaming or astral projection in terms of enlightenment. It really changes your perspective of the world. Having experienced something so strange reminds me that reality really is down to your perspective. I am far more lenient when judging the personalities of people I meet now, and I tend to panic less when faced with real-life dilemmas. I am aware that my stressed, sober day-to-day viewpoint isn't absolute judgment or authority, and that I should leave all doors in my life partly open.
Have You Experienced Intense Derealisation?
Have You Ever Smoked Cannabis?
Have You Tried MDMA/Ecstasy?
Have You Done Psychedelics?
What Is Your Biological Gender?
How Do You Identify?
Do You Think Cannabis Triggered It Initially/"Taught" Your Brain How To Do It?
What Is Your Main Issue?
MBTI Personality Type
What Is Your MBTI Personality Type (take online free test if you don't know!)
MBTI personality type results - emotionally-sensitive introverts are more prone to dissociation?
Please take the time to fill out the polls and leave a comment, so that we can all help one another through this crazy period of self-questioning and turbulence.
I am particularly fascinated by the MBTI personality type poll; it confirms my suspicion that introverted, perceptive and introspective people are far more likely to battle relentless dissociative symptoms. If you look at the personality types' distribution, it's evident that certain MBTI types including INFP, INTP and INFJ are represented far more than they would be in a random population sample. The opposite is true for the more conventional, extroverted, practical personality types - people of the 'confident and rational' nature seem to be few and far between! It may be that us introverted, spiritually-inclined people are more prone to anxiety and therefore dissociation, or the relationship may be far more correlative than it is causal (e.g. us being that way and us experiencing derealization simply coincide, instead of being intrinsically linked).
Thank you for reading until the end!
I wish you a rapid recovery and hope you are soon able to trust reality again. Strive to be comfortable exploring the oscillations of your own mind instead of fighting them, and feel free to contact me to ask anything or share your story.
Would you appreciate more hubs on dissociative anxiety symptoms/DPDR?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
I experienced "derealization" first in summer 2017. And you are 100% correct. Couldn't have said it any better. Its all about anxiety, derealisation is a normal state of mind. Don't you think it's all about settings the focus on it?
Yes - I have studied the topic myself as well as carrying out a lot of my own open-minded research, and I'm absolutely sure that derealisation is an anxiety symptom, rather than a psychotic phenomenon. The problem we have to overcome is our tendency to indulge 'reality checks' and obsessive, OCD/anxiety-style thought loops.
This can be a difficult task in itself, but it's at least comforting to know that we are not losing our minds or developing something more grave like schizophrenia.Helpful 13
© 2017 Lucy