By Swamy G
Have you ever felt “weird” and disoriented — like the world around you wasn’t real? Did your surroundings feel like a dream? Were you scared or disturbed by this shift in reality? This disconcerting experience may be an instance of derealization (DR).
Anyone can experience DR. Experts are still learning the underlying mechanics of derealization, but it can be triggered by several causes:
When I experienced derealization, I distinctly remember experiencing my reality as if it were a dream. I would be walking down the road, caught up in my thoughts and, suddenly, the outside world would feel “off” and unfamiliar.
One night, I ate some cannabis edibles recreationally, something I had done without incident many times before. For weeks, I had been feeling disconnected from reality; I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything was just a dream. After consuming the edibles, these inexplicable feelings intensified. I attributed this escalation to the effects of the cannabis and decided to sleep it off. When I woke up the next day, the feeling remained.
In retrospect, I do not believe the cannabis was the trigger for my derealization. While there have been several cases in which people have consumed marijuana and felt unable to control its psychoactive effects — and this can lead to panic attacks and reports of feeling derealized — I believe that my DR had begun before I consumed the edibles. Over the next few days, the dreaming sensation returned several times. This feeling of “unreality” would grip me without warning.
A few days after I experienced this intensification of my strange feelings, I was having lunch with my co-workers. After ordering my food, I suddenly felt as though something was “off.” Everything and everyone around me looked strange, but I wasn't experiencing any visual hallucinations. Rather, everything felt intensely odd to me. Over the next few weeks, this evolved into a full-blown DR episode that lasted a few years.
I’d like to share my understanding of this symptom to help those who may be experiencing something similar.
When I first began experiencing derealization, I was worried that my symptoms must be the start of something terrible. The experience can feel so strange and isolating. I (and many others who have been in my position) assumed that this feeling meant I was in serious danger.
For some, the derealization can be a “one-time” event. For others it may be chronic — either experiencing intermittent episodes that come and go or experiencing feelings of unreality consistently for a long period of time. Naturally, people experiencing chronic disconnection from reality may fear for their safety and their futures.
However, I’m happy to report that, even after all these years, nothing dreadful happened to me. I am recovered and living a fully functional life. None of my worst fears ever materialized.
There’s a reason we feel this way. When we experience significant trauma or stress, our body and mind can dissociate. This is sometimes necessary to prevent feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Simply put, the body and mind disconnect; either from each other or from reality. This disconnection serves as a protective mechanism.
My biggest fear during DR was that it seemed like the onset of psychosis. I worried that this state was actually the beginnings of schizophrenia or something more serious. However, DR is not the same as psychosis, and experiencing DR does not mean that you will develop schizophrenia.
People with schizophrenia or psychosis commonly experience hallucinations or delusions that are difficult to distinguish from reality. Individuals with DR may feel strange about themselves or their surroundings, but they do not typically experience hallucinations or delusions. They are also more often aware that something is “off” and may have an easier time describing their symptoms as inconsistent with reality.
It is important to note that people with schizophrenia can also experience derealization, but awareness of symptoms is key to help differentiate between the two conditions.
Your first instinct may be to fight and resist the way you are feeling. Understandably, you may want to stop feeling “strange.” I felt similarly, at first. But little did I realize that it was my fighting these DR feelings that allowed them to last longer.
As I’ve learned through personal experience, when we fight and resist the way we are feeling, we unnecessarily stress our body and mind. This stress produces more feelings of derealization, and your coping mechanism actually becomes a vicious feedback loop. The best way to end this loop is to stop fighting these feelings, sit with them and try to accept them.
This may sound like a terrible idea at first. You may think that accepting and allowing these feelings could lead to losing touch with reality. However, this is not the case. Once you start to relax and let go, you can begin to heal from derealization.
Whenever you experience DR, tell yourself that it’s ok to feel this way. Then, try to allow yourself to experience the sensation. Don’t judge or label it as something dangerous. Accept it and do your best to continue on with your day. Of course, this will be hard in the beginning, but once you are assured of your safety, you will have an easier time letting go and healing.
Once you follow the path of acceptance, the best thing is to keep moving forward. I understand that DR can restrict your life. You may not feel like the same person you were a few weeks ago. You may even feel lost, scared, depressed or hopeless.
I remember the fear and uncertainty. However, in the end, I managed to find courage and hope and keep moving forward with my life. Once I became assured that I was not in harm’s way, I stopped fighting my symptoms. I began to slowly let go. I tried to live my life as normally as I could, even amid frequent symptoms.
It helped me to take small strides and accomplish simple tasks every day, to develop healthy habits and stick to them, to educate myself about this condition, to practice acceptance and to continue living a healthy, productive life. Recovery from derealization takes time, so patience is key, but I am living proof that it is possible.
Swamy G once suffered from depersonalization and derealization but made great strides in his recovery. He is now a certified counselor to help people recover from DP/DR, anxiety and panic disorder. Swamy is the creator of DP No More, an online video course to help you manage depersonalization and derealization.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
In a crisis? Call or text 988.
Find Your Local NAMI