Mental-Cognitive Symptoms
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Derealization - A Scary Anxiety Symptom

Denise Griswold, MSc, LCAS
Derealization - A Scary Anxiety Symptom

In cases of severe anxiety, a person may feel as though they're going crazy. They may feel as though something is off in reality and the world around them is essentially crashing. In some cases, this may cause the world to feel "unreal," as though something is not quite right in the world around them.

This is known as derealization, and for those who experience it, it can be a frightening symptom of anxiety. Derealization is also completely subjective, making the experience sometimes very difficult to understand unless you've experienced it.

Causes of Derealization From Anxiety

Derealization is incredibly complex. It's not entirely clear what occurs in the brain to cause people to enter a trance-like state and feel out from reality. It is believed to be a natural coping mechanism created within our bodies. During intense periods of anxiety (as occurs with panic attacks), the mind seems to decide it's going to tune the world out in order to, at least temporarily, eliminate thinking about the anxiety inducing stimuli.

Since the mind keeps working during this ‘tune out,’ the world becomes a place that feels unreal. Those who experience derealization will usually find it occurs in the peak of an anxiety attack, along with other symptoms that are characteristic of an anxiety disorder.

Trying to Make Sense of a Loss of Reality

For those who have not personally experienced derealization it may help to imagine being transported into a place that you do not recognize nor do you understand. In this place you cannot seem to follow what's going on or make sense of the world around you. Your brain’s failure to process the information being taken in by your sense (sight, sound, etc) results in even the most familiar places looking unfamiliar and strange.

There's no denying that this experience is profoundly unusual and frightening one. It can often feel like you're not really in the environment surrounding you, or that the world around you is unreal. You may feel like you're watching something going on with no understanding of what it is, or that the world is a dream that you aren't able to escape. In some cases, derealization may be combined with depersonalization, which can make it feel like you're watching yourself.

Other anxiety symptoms may make the feeling of derealization worse. During anxiety attacks your pupils may dilate, and this can cause unusual vision. Anxiety may also weaken your muscles, making you feel lighter. There are countless ways that your anxiety symptoms may interact and potentially exacerbate one another.

How to Stop Derealization

Derealization - when it comes from anxiety - is not considered dangerous. It generally goes away on its own and only comes during periods of intense anxiety. If your derealization is so persistent that it's altering your sense of reality, or if it lasts for a long period of time, you should contact a doctor immediately.

Doctors and psychologists generally agree that the best way to stop derealization is with mindfulness. Mindfulness is the act of becoming more aware of your own present. Mindfulness can be completed in a variety of ways, but the easiest way is to simply get yourself to perform an action and focus as much as possible on that action in order to get yourself back into the world.

For example:

Some also advise that you keep your eyes moving and try to get your brain thinking. Don't simply zone out to a single thought.

Consider starting with the following exercise, and see if this helps with the derealization. You can also try search engines or speak to a therapist/counselor about other successful techniques:

It may be helpful to also meditate or perform these exercises even when you’re not experiencing de-realization so that you get into the practice of utilizing your senses to experince what is “real.” 

Remember, derealization is an anxiety symptom. It doesn't mean you're psychotic, nor does it mean anything is wrong with your mind. As such, part of overcoming derealization is simply to wait it out, then address your anxiety symptoms in order to make sure you don't experience that intense level of anxiety again.

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