Depersonalization (also referred to as "derealization") is a common symptom of anxiety disorder. Many anxiety disorder sufferers get depersonalization as a symptom, especially when anxiety has become chronic.
There are many reasons why anxiety can cause depersonalization (derealization) symptoms. This article explains four of the most common reasons and what you can do to get rid of anxiety-caused depersonalization and derealization symptoms.
Depersonalization (derealization) anxiety symptoms description:
Common descriptions of the depersonalization, derealization anxiety symptoms:
- Depersonalized, depersonalization anxiety.
- Detached from reality.
- Out of touch with reality.
- In a dream-like state.
- Not part of reality.
- Out of body feeling.
- Derealization, derealized.
- That you are observing yourself from outside your body.
- Like things aren’t real.
- Like you are living in a dream.
- Disconnected from reality and the real world.
- Like you are disconnected from your real thoughts and emotions.
- Like you are a stranger in your own body.
- Like you aren't alive.
- Like you are a zombie.
- Like you are detached from your normal thoughts and emotions.
- Like your emotions are detached from reality.
To name a few.
Depersonalization anxiety symptoms can come and go rarely, occur frequently, or persist indefinitely. For example, you can feel depersonalization occasionally, feel it off and on, or feel depersonalized all the time.
Depersonalization anxiety symptoms can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety symptoms or occur by itself.
Depersonalization anxiety symptoms can precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, elevated stress, etc., or occur "out of the blue" and for no apparent reason.
Depersonalization anxiety symptoms can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. It can also come in waves where it’s strong one moment and eases off the next.
Depersonalization anxiety symptoms can change from day to day and from moment to moment.
All of the above combinations and variations are common.
Depersonalization anxiety symptoms can seem more pronounced when undistracted, trying to rest, or when going to or waking up from sleep.
The higher the rating, the more likely it could be contributing to your anxiety symptoms, including depersonalization / derealization anxiety symptoms.
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What causes depersonalization, derealization anxiety symptoms?
There are many reasons why anxiety can cause depersonalization symptoms. Here are four of the most common:
1. Anxiety and an active stress response
When we are anxious, the body activates the fight or flight response, also known as the stress response. This stress response releases stress hormones, which are stimulants, into the bloodstream to prepare the body for immediate action – either to fight or flee.
As these hormones travel throughout the body, they cause physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in how the body functions so that our defenses are maximized. This emergency readiness heightens emergency functions while suppressing non-emergency functions.
While these changes affect many parts of the body, they also affect how the brain interacts with itself. For example, when stress hormones are at normal levels, the rationalization, learning, and emotional areas of the brain interact normally. This normal interaction allows us to think, remember, and experience thoughts and emotions normally. As a result, we FEEL normal, experience normal emotions and thinking processes, and feel complete within ourselves and in our reality.
When we perceive danger, however, this interaction changes. For example, stress hormones cause the amygdala, the fear center of the brain, to become dominant while causing the rationalization and learning centers of the brain to become suppressed. It makes this change because our priority becomes survival when in dangerous situations. All functions that aren’t involved in the emergency response mechanism are suppressed so that the body can maximize its resources to either defend ourselves against or run away from the threat. While this change enhances our emergency readiness, it impairs our ability to think clearly and remember short-term information.
This emergency-readiness change in brain function can create a sense of “depersonalization” while the stress response is active.
The stress response causes other changes, too, such as heightening our senses, dilating the pupils, rushing blood to the head, narrowing vision, increasing fear detection and reaction, and so on. All of these changes can also alter our sense of perception, reasoning, and emotions, which can enhance a sense of depersonalization.
For more detailed information about the many changes the stress response brings about, visit our “Stress Response” article.
Stress responses are supposed to cause these changes. It’s part of the body’s instinctual survival mechanism. As the perception of danger increases, so does the body’s level of emergency preparedness.
When anxious behavior has triggered a stress response, we can experience a temporary feeling of depersonalization.
2. Stress-response hyperstimulation
When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the stress response brings about. When stress responses occur too frequently, however, the body can remain in a state of semi stress-response readiness, which we call stress-response hyperstimulation since stress hormones are stimulants. Hyperstimulation can cause the body to exhibit symptoms of an active stress response, except that they can persist as long as the body is hyperstimulated. Chronic depersonalization is an example.
For instance, rationalization and short-term memory suppression due to sustained emergency readiness impairs the brain’s ability to rationally process and store new information. Consequently, the areas of the brain that normally communicate well have difficulty doing so. This difficulty can be experienced as a disconnect between how we perceive, process, and store information, which can affect how we feel about ourselves and the world around us.
This combination of disconnects is at the root of feeling “separate” or “detached” from how we normally think, feel, and remember. “I feel like I’m living outside or separate from myself” is a common description of how this disconnect can be experienced.
Hyperstimulation caused “processing impairment” can make us feel depersonalized, separate from our self, separate from our reality, and cause memory, emotional, and even performance problems.
We feel depersonalized because the brain isn’t communicating with itself correctly due to the adverse effects of hyperstimulation.
It’s not that we are disconnected or detached from reality, but that the chronically stressed brain is having processing challenges. Therefore, it can SEEM like we are disconnected or detached from reality.
Essentially, depersonalization is a brain-processing problem and not a reality problem.
As such, depersonalization is just another symptom of chronic stress (hyperstimulation). Chronic anxiety and stress often produce this symptom.
3. Hyper- and Hypoventilation
Hyper- or hypoventilation is another cause of depersonalization. When we breathe too shallowly and don’t take in enough oxygen (hypoventilation), CO2 levels in the blood drop, which can cause a depersonalization feeling.
If, on the other hand, you are breathing too aggressively and take in too much oxygen (hyperventilation), CO2 levels in the blood can rise, which can also cause a depersonalization feeling.
Even though depersonalization caused by breathing issues can seem odd and even unsettling, they are harmless and needn’t be a cause for concern. They will subside when breathing is normalized. Depersonalization caused by hyper- and hypoventilation is typically a temporary condition and isn’t the cause of chronic depersonalization.
4. Adverse effects of medication
Depersonalization can also be an adverse effect of medication, including anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications. If you believe your depersonalization is caused by an adverse effect of medication, you should discuss this with your doctor and pharmacist.
I (Jim Folk) also experienced depersonalization…and to a severe degree. It scared the daylights out of me when it first occurred. In my hyper-reactive state, having my reality altered was the last thing I needed. Since depersonalization shook the foundations of my reality, I reacted badly to it initially. I had no idea what it was or what was causing it, so I imagined the worst: brain tumor, MS, ALS, some other serious mental illness or neurological disease, or that I was drifting into another state of consciousness. Even though I found out that depersonalization was a common anxiety symptom, it still took me a long time to accept it and not react to it.
While depersonalization can be unsettling and impairing, it’s not harmful in itself or an indication of something more serious. It’s just another symptom of hyperstimulation, and therefore, needn’t be a cause for concern.
Similar to ALL anxiety sensations and symptoms, when you work to eliminate hyperstimulation and give the body sufficient time to recover, depersonalization subsides as hyperstimulation is eliminated.
Once again, many people experience depersonalization anxiety feelings when the body is hyperstimulated. The difference, however, is that people who aren’t overly anxious don’t worry about it whereas anxious people do. Since worry is apprehensive behavior that activates the stress response, worry can aggravate hyperstimulation and cause the depersonalization symptoms to persist.
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Depersonalization anxiety symptoms treatment
When depersonalization anxiety symptoms are caused by apprehensive behavior and the accompanying stress response changes, calming yourself down will bring an end to the response and its changes.
As your body recovers from the active stress response, depersonalization symptoms should subside and you should return to your normal self. Keep in mind that it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. But this is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
When depersonalization is caused by chronic stress (hyperstimulation), it can take a lot longer for the body to recover and to the point where depersonalization subsides.
Nevertheless, when the body has recovered from hyperstimulation, depersonalization anxiety symptoms disappear. Therefore, depersonalization needn’t be a cause for concern. Reducing your body’s stress and giving it ample time to recover will eliminate depersonalization.
You can speed up the recovery process by reducing stress, containing your anxiousness, practicing relaxed diaphragmatic breathing, increasing rest, and getting good sleep.
Sure, depersonalization can be unsettling. But again, when the body has recovered from the active stress response or hyperstimulation, depersonalization feelings subside.
It’s important to note that eliminating anxiety symptoms isn’t the same as eliminating anxiety disorder. Anxiety symptoms are merely an indication of a problem with anxiety. To eliminate anxiety, you need to successfully identify and address the underlying factors that cause issues with problematic anxiety.
The underlying factors can be defined as: those behaviors (thoughts and actions), situations, and circumstances that motivate overly apprehensive behavior. When you successfully address the underlying factors that cause issues with problematic anxiety, you eliminate the cause of the problem and the problem’s symptoms!
Visit our article “Two Levels Of Anxiety Disorder Recovery” for more information.
Play the clip below for Jim Folk's commentary about the anxiety symptom depersonalization. Jim Folk is the president of anxietycentre.com.
Depersonalization is a common symptom of chronic stress, including anxiety-caused stress. Jim Folk experienced depersonalization to a severe degree during his 12-year struggle with anxiety disorder.
For a more detailed explanation about anxiety and its symptoms, why symptoms can persist long after the stress response has ended, common barriers to recovery and symptom elimination, and more recovery strategies and tips, we have many chapters that address this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
If you are having difficulty with problematic anxiety, you might want to connect with one of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists. Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome anxiety disorder and its symptoms.
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- Anxiety 101 is a summarized description of anxiety, anxiety disorder, and how to overcome it.
Return to our Anxiety Articles page.
anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Depersonalization, Derealization anxiety symptoms.
3. Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. "Emotional stress can change brain function." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 January 2011.
4. Shields, Grant, et al. "The Effects of Acute Stress on Core Executive Functions: A Meta-Analysis and Comparison with Cortisol." Neuroscience and Behavior, 28 June 2016.
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6. Meuret, Alicia E., and Thomas Ritz. “Hyperventilation in Panic Disorder and Asthma: Empirical Evidence and Clinical Strategies.” NCBI PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2010.
7. "Antidepressant Side Effects: List Of Possibilities.” Mental Health Daily, 23 Aug. 2014.