If you’ve ever felt that suddenly nothing around you feels or looks real any longer, or that the world suddenly looks “strange” or “not exactly right”, you’ve probably experienced derealization.  People who experience derealization as an anxiety symptom have a very difficult time explaining it to others.

What Is Derealization?

I’ve heard it described as looking at the world through glass or a camera lens.  Others have said that it feels like you’ve been shifted “out of phase” with reality and therefore aren’t perfectly attached to it any more. Still others have talked about a sudden shift in the way everything looks, feels and sounds.  Regardless of the description, derealization is common and often quite disturbing.

Derealization is a dissociative state. The dissociative states – derealization and depersonalization – are possibly the most common yet misunderstood and under-discussed anxiety symptoms.  For many, they’re the most difficult symptoms to fully accept and not fear.

Do I Have A Dissociative Disorder?

Dissociative states exist on a continuum. The most common and mild state is that “zoning out/daydream” state that we all experience from time to time.  On the other end of the continuum are serious and frightening things like dissociative disorders that can involve permanent or near permanent states of derealization or depersonalization.  If you’re reading this because you’re dealing with panic attacks and/or agoraphobia, the odds are VERY high that you do not have a dissociative disorder.

Just An Anxiety Symptom

In the case of anxiety disorders like panic disorder, agoraphobia or generalized anxiety disorder, dissociative states are simply anxiety symptoms much like a racing heart or wobbly legs or mild dizziness. They’re no more and no less.  They are not indicative of any grave danger, nor are they permanent or indicative of any serious mental illness or defect. Though they may be extremely uncomfortable, upsetting and frightening, they are merely symptoms and should be approached as we approach all our anxiety symptoms.

Derealization may be based on a shift in the way we process sensory input.  While most of what we see, hear, smell, touch or taste is processed automatically in the background (thankfully), I suspect that derealization may be what happens when our brains shift that processing into the foreground.  Things we don’t normally think about or subjectively interpret are suddenly subject to conscious analysis.  This is an un-natural state that we have no experience with.  I may be completely wrong about this, but even I am, this common sense explanation of what’s going in during derealization helped me accept that state and not fear it.

What Can I Do About It?

So what do you when derealization hits?  The same things you do when every other anxiety or panic symptom strikes.  Relax.  Breathe. Don’t add more fear.  Don’t fight. This is especially difficult with the dissociative state because we’re not really sure why they pop up and we’re never really sure when they’ll end, but the strategy still applies.  One additional trick is to test your ability to interact with and control your environment.  While in the car, I’d tell myself to change the radio station, then I’d do it.  Bingo.  Proof that even though everything felt scary and un-real, I was still intact and in control.

As expected, the more I accepted and the less I added more fear, the shorter my derealization spells would last.  Then they’d come less often.  Ultimately derealization has become something I really only experience during times of high anxiety.  I no longer work so hard to avoid it.  If I can do it, I know you can too.

In the episode we’ll look at depersonalization, another dissociative state that can also be terribly scary and hard to accept, but usually for different reasons.

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Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.

One Comment

  • MaulPark says:

    Most enjoyable again Drew….My experience with this is, on the odd occasion i would just be in the middle of doing something,And i would just get this strange feeling, Like I am trying to get back into a Dream..Then i would get a weird sensation going right from the back of my head, slowly to the front..Not a headache as such, just a pushing feeling….Once my acceptance of it kicks in I’m usually fine. Like you, the less afraid of it I am, the quicker it goes…..All the Best Drew, And Thank You…………Paul