Anxiety can be an overwhelming condition, and when the mind is overwhelmed, it can do some very unusual things. One of these unusual things is known as depersonalization. Depersonalization is, in some cases, a symptom of anxiety, and it tends to fuel more anxiety and more depersonalization.
Depersonalization is when a person’s mind essentially feels divorced from his or her own sense of self. It is when a person essentially becomes overly self-aware - to the point of feeling as though they are not in their own body. Depersonalization is a consciousness that many have described as a feeling of floating outside of oneself and that one’s actions are not his or her own. Depersonalization is common for many who suffer from panic disorder and may occur with other anxiety disorders as well.
Depersonalization, although often a symptom of anxiety and panic, is also a mental health disorder of its own. Depersonalization is also, in some cases, a symptom of depression, drug abuse, or even the result of taking anti-anxiety medications.
While the things that can trigger depersonalization are understood, it is still unknown precisely why it occurs. Studies have not yet determined the brain mechanism(s) that create depersonalization. What is known is depersonalization is not deadly, nor is it indicative of a larger problem (when caused by anxiety). Many people experience depersonalization as a result of intense stress and/or anxiety.
The Most Likely Causes
Although the exact reason(s) why depersonalization occurs, there are some hypotheses around it being a way one’s brain copes with stress. When a person becomes extremely overwhelmed by emotion, the result is intense stress. Stress does not just cause racing thoughts and behavioral symptoms, intense stress affects the physical brain as well.
So, in the case of an overly stressed brain, a person often experiences depersonalization as a way of separating from that stress, essentially providing a bit of relief. Intrinsically, certain parts of the brain will shut down during periods of depersonalization, disconnecting a person from the emotions. Unfortunately, depersonalization can cause difficult emotions itself - especially anxiety.
Another possible cause of depersonalization in some people is because anxiety and panic can lead to “hyper-awareness.” Generally, hyper-awareness occurs when a person experiences physical symptoms as a result of anxiety. For example, some people feel they have a swollen tongue during an anxiety attack, even when the tongue is not actually swollen. Nonetheless, the mind tends to over-focus on the feelings of the tongue, causing a false sense of it being enlarged.
Finally, during times of increased anxiety and panic attacks, neurotransmitters in the brain are often firing at a much more rapid rate. Some believe these neurotransmitters are activating or deactivating parts of one’s brain that can contribute to the dissociative state of depersonalization.
How to Reduce or Treat Depersonalization
During a period of depersonalization, it can be hard for many people to ground themselves and “get back to reality.” It is helpful to know that simply waiting it out, a person will tend to see the depersonalization subside, as the intensity of depersonalization decreases over time.
Since depersonalization occurs as a result of intense anxiety and/or panic attacks, often the most helpful thing a person can do is learn to manage and decrease the intensity of his or her anxiety and stress. Some helpful approaches to this are:
- Practice acceptance of depersonalization - Even though a person may not like or want the experience of depersonalization, it is almost always out of that person’s control. Depersonalization can be very frightening (although it is not dangerous), which can cause someone to want to “fight it.” Unfortunately, this is unhelpful. Fighting it will not solve anything, and may even make the anxiety, and thus, the depersonalization worse. Some find it helpful to remind themselves that depersonalization may be a scary event, but it will not always feel as intense, and it is out of his or her control.
- Learn effective breathing techniques - Because depersonalization occurs at the height of anxiety attacks, one of the issues that tends to make the symptoms worse is hyperventilation. Hyperventilation reduces blood flow to the brain and causes other symptoms that can result in intense stress. Learning to slow down breathing can cause a dramatic difference in one’s stress and therefore the intensity/length of depersonalization. Try breathing in for 5 seconds, holding for 2, and breathing out for 7. This is an effective technique for anytime a person feels increased stress, anxiety, or panic, or in times when depersonalization has already started.
- Distract and talk about it - People who experience depersonalization are usually aware of the dreamlike state he or she is in. because of the scary nature of depersonalization, many tend to retract inward, and keep everything to themselves. This often results in withdrawal and isolation (being alone) which can contribute to more focus on the depersonalization and resulting difficult symptoms. Finding positive distractions, such as calling a supportive friend, or talking to those around you, can be helpful. Although depersonalization can be a difficult topic to discuss, it can prove extremely helpful to get out of one’s head and be open and honest with trusted individuals.
- Go Jogging - Most have heard exercise is key to mental health and wellness. In the same respect, jogging can be very beneficial to managing stress, anxiety, and thus decreasing one’s chances of experiencing depersonalization. Jogging/running can also be a sort of “wake up” call back to reality for many people. Engaging in exercise can be a grounding experience, and bring the mind back to the present moment. Running can be hard when a person is having anxiety (due to rapid heartbeat and other difficult symptoms). If this is the case, then walking is absolutely fine, and provide the same result(s).
Depersonalization is not dangerous, so the key is to learn ways to reduce the extent of your panic attacks and your anxiety. No matter what, you'll still need to address your overall anxiety levels so that you decrease the likelihood of experiencing depersonalization.