What is Depersonalization? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Depersonalization is a peculiar condition where a person either feels disconnected from his or her body or feels like an observer on his or her own life. It's a mental health disorder that you can learn all about in this lesson.

What is Depersonalization?

Imagine you're like Neo in The Matrix before he's 'unplugged.' He's certain that there's something wrong with the world, that something is off. He feels like he isn't real, disconnected from the world that he inhabits. Believe it or not, he probably wasn't realizing there was a vast conspiracy led by sentient machines to keep humans enslaved. He was probably just suffering from depersonalization.

Depersonalization is a mental health disorder in which the sufferer feels a disconnection from his or her physical body. Often, they may feel like an observer of their own life! Sometimes, victims describe depersonalization as if living in a dream, and interestingly, the person is usually aware that they aren't experiencing reality normally (in contrast to many mental health disorders where the person is unaware that their reality is abnormal, medically speaking).

Now, you may have experienced fleeting moments of depersonalization occasionally throughout your life. Don't panic: that's completely normal! However, if it happens repeatedly and lasts for a long time, then it begins to cross into the realm of mental health disorders. Chronic depersonalization may also be called depersonalization-derealization disorder.

What Causes Depersonalization?

Depersonalization is often triggered by some form of traumatic event and is believed to be due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Stress caused by some type of trauma may lead to the development of symptoms, and depersonalization is often a symptom of some larger condition, rather than a disease in itself. People who have experienced verbal, emotional, or physical abuse, a violent accident, an assault, a serious illness, or severe stress may be more apt to developing depersonalization symptoms.

Because symptoms are triggered by traumatic events, anyone is capable of developing a depersonalization disorder. However, certain people may be more at risk than others. People who have trouble adapting to new situations, experience other types of mental health disorders, and are in their teens to early adulthood are most susceptible to developing symptoms of depersonalization after some type of stressful event. Temporary depersonalization may be caused by drug abuse or serious illnesses.

Symptoms of Depersonalization

Now that we know what depersonalization is, as well as what causes it, what about its specific symptoms? By definition, we know that one symptom is feeling disconnected from your physical world, often feeling like an outsider on your own life. These feelings can be emotionally disturbing and unsettling and often end up disrupting other areas of your life.

Specific descriptions of depersonalization symptoms include:

  • Feeling robotic
  • A loss of control over the limbs
  • Feeling numb to the world around you (this can include both mentally and physically)
  • Feeling that your limbs are physically distorted (i.e., enlarged or shrunken)
  • Feeling unsure that your memories are your own
  • Feeling preoccupied about differentiating what is and isn't 'real'
  • Feelings of anxiety, depression, or panic

All of these symptoms sound extremely unsettling, but it's important to remember that true depersonalization isn't marked by fleeting symptoms; rather, symptoms occur over an extended period of time.

Symptoms of depersonalization often include feeling like your limbs are out of your control and are not your own.

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