Depersonalization is a feeling of disconnection from one’s identity. People with depersonalization feel like they have no control of their own thoughts and actions. They can feel like they are watching themselves from outside their own bodies, and that they are outside of reality.
Many people experience short-term symptoms of depersonalization from time to time. Ongoing or recurring bouts can indicate depersonalization disorder.
Depersonalization disorder can cause strain in relationships. It can make normal life, including work and hobbies, challenging. People who experience long-term or recurring symptoms that disrupt life, work, and relationships should seek medical advice.
The cause of depersonalization is largely unknown. It may be related to chemical imbalances in the brain, specifically in neurotransmitters.
Experiences of depersonalization can be triggered by stress. They often occur in conjunction with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. Some cases have no exact cause or trigger. Others begin after a traumatic event.
People with depersonalization often have muted senses and slow response times. They may feel as though their limbs are distorted. Depersonalization can cause a person to feel disconnected from other people, especially emotionally. These feelings can be scary, but usually the person is aware that the feelings are not real.
A brain and nervous system specialist or psychiatrist can diagnose depersonalization. Doctors will first rule out neurological disorders as the cause of symptoms. They will also test for other mental health disorders.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the following symptoms indicate depersonalization disorder:
- ongoing or recurring depersonalization or detachment
- awareness that the detachment isn’t real
- symptoms interfere with relationships, work, and life
- symptoms not directly caused by other mental health conditions or the use of drugs, alcohol, or medication
Depersonalization is more likely to develop in people who have experienced or witnessed a life-threatening or traumatic event. It can also develop in people with post-traumatic stress disorders and in people with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or panic disorders.
Depersonalization usually occurs in teenage or early adult years.
Treatment for depersonalization often includes medication and/or psychotherapy. There are no medications specific to depersonalization. Some people find relief through antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. Psychotherapy can help a patient understand his or her feelings and overcome fear. It can also help a patient work through other mental health issues.
Treatments will seek to provide coping mechanisms and relief of symptoms.
Some people with depersonalization disorder recover completely. Symptoms sometimes go away without treatment over time. More often, they require treatment.
Written by: Amber Erickson Gabbey
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA