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How to Recover From Anxiety-Induced Derealization and Dissociation

Updated on August 20, 2017
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I am studying neuroscience and am passionate about the brain and the way that we perceive reality; article-writing is my favourite hobby.

What Is Derealisation?

Many people who suffer from some form of anxiety (generalised anxiety or panic disorder) develop dissociative symptoms. These include feelings of unreality that we refer to as "derealisation", which cause the sufferer to feel as if they are in a completely dreamlike state, surrounded by an unfamiliar world in which they can no longer find any form of solace. This symptom is so scary and different to the normal, sober state that it can cause one to worry that they are developing schizophrenia or psychosis, and about to "lose control" of their mind.

After all, derealisation feels psychedelic by nature, and when it hits, it is nearly impossible to believe that it is just an illusion created by anxiety and not something much, much more severe that will eventually render you unable to function.However, I am writing this hub to promise you that, in your current state of extreme vulnerability and fear, that this is not the case.

You can snap out of this trance, and see reality as you once saw it again. I have experienced prolonged bouts of this symptom, created by a combination of severe anxiety and a propensity to hyperfocus and obsess (OCD tendencies). In terms of coping mechanisms, I am now very aware of what works and what doesn't work. I will address all the myths about derealisation and share the techniques that helped me overcome this terrifying symptom.

Do you believe that derealization can be overcome?

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Who Suffers From Derealisation?

As I touched on in the introduction, derealisation is closely linked to anxiety and the hyper-focused thinking states that anxiety-prone people find themselves slipping into. For this reason, it is also sometimes experienced by sufferers of OCD.

I will not deeply delve into brain chemistry, as I want this hub to be accessible to everyone who wants to rapidly recover from derealisation. However, we all have different balances of neurotransmitters, and some of us are more prone to focusing on dissociation and, in turn, developing what we call "derealisation". This phenomenon is not dangerous at all, and does not lead to anything more severe (that I can promise you). Nevertheless, is very unsettling and even life-destroying at its worst (due to the fear surrounding it), so must be taken seriously and addressed.

What Is Dissociation?

Based on my neuroscience background and my personal experience (as well as extensive open-minded research), I can confidently say that derealisation is caused by an abnormal obsession with dissociation and unreality. Mild levels of dissociation are perfectly normal. After all, to have a human brain is to experience some strange sensations from time to time. This is because we are never as "fixed" in reality as we think; our brains create what we call "reality". This means that when neurotransmitters are offset due to stress, or adrenaline is acting on the body, it is common for us to feel some "floaty" sensations, or to begin to feel that we are perceiving the world differently to normal. We are perceiving it differently, and that is okay. That shouldn't scare us, because it isn't like it spirals out of control and renders us unable to live/speak/work. The key is to not expect to see the world in the same way 24/7, since you have a brain that is constantly being altered by stress levels, other hormones and whatever food you're consuming.

When neurotransmitters are offset due to stress, or adrenaline is acting on the body for prolonged periods of time, it is common for us to feel some "floaty" sensations, or to begin to feel that we are perceiving the world differently to normal. This is because our brain's physicality is essentially changing, and therefore, the way that we view the world will naturally shift too (just as simply drinking coffee can make the world seem more beautiful and bright. This doesn't worry you, right? But, even this could get weird if you focused on it enough).

"Come a Little Closer, Then You'll See - Things Aren't Always What They Seem to Be"

Derealisation = Normal Dissociation Plus Obsession

I will delve a little further into the concept of "normal dissociation", and how it is linked to the problem of derealisation. Think back to when you were a child chasing your sibling across the beach, and you were completely lost to the innocent game, the noises and the smell of the sea. In this excited, adrenaline-fuelled state, if you had possessed the obsessive and adult-level thinking that you do now, you probably would have looked around and felt quite out-of-body and "in a simulation". This probably would have panicked you, causing more adrenaline to be released, making your body respond as if it were in danger. This, in turn, would have worsened the derealisation, probably causing you to worry about developing things like psychosis and schizophrenia. You would have had to leave the beach in a panic and wouldn't even have found relief back at home (since you can't run away from your own thought spirals).

However, back then you were a child and not a fear-paralysed adult, and didn't have internet access to google symptoms. You were not aware of severe mental illnesses that you could, in theory, be developing, and also were not even aware that anyone could feel detached from the world. You enjoyed your mild dissociation, the floatiness that you felt when listening to music, and felt that it was normal, because it was and IS normal.

You were in the dopamine-rich stage of childhood, and were constantly and healthily being distracted by interesting stimuli within reality e.g. food, animals, your friends, your parents' discipline. This meant that, even though you experienced natural dissociation as a child (just as everyone does), and you possessed the same genes that you have now (which make you prone to fixation and panic), it never went down the path of a derealisation disorder. In this way, you were free when you were younger - free from the crippling fear of "losing your mind" or never being able to "see the world normally again". These falsehoods have been controlling your life recently.

There, There by Radiohead (surreal song)

Without Obsession, There Is No Derealisation Disorder

To clarify, you live in your head now and get yourself into obsessive spirals, but this wasn't the case when you were 4-10 years old. For this reason, you should find comfort in the fact that there is nothing wrong with you or your brain. You aren't "too psychologically damaged to cope", even after years of severe anxiety. Apart from some learned behavioural patterns (e.g. fear of talking to strangers due to adolescent bullying), you have the potential to function with your unique brain, just as you did when you were very young and felt safe within the physical world. If you're naturally prone to some spacey, light-headed dissociation and tend to focus intently on the way that you're viewing the world, this doesn't mean that you will always experience derealisation and have panic attacks due to it. You can treat the obsessive element of your psyche your own, even without the intervention of professionals. You can become free again. I have managed it, and believe me, I once believed that I had lost my entire life to derealisation.

But, How Is My Brain Creating Such A Terrifying Symptom?

Derealisation is terrifyingly far from your normal, baseline state. You feel like you're intoxicated constantly, and that you will surely never be able to snap out of something so strange. You would do anything to experience the simple things in life again, and to feel within reality.

Understand this: derealisation occurs when an anxiety-prone person becomes obsessively terrified with the peculiar concept of not being able to see reality normally, because we believe that our reality is changing and will eventually be almost completely psychedelic and unrecognisable. This is a falsehood. The very fact that you are aware of this symptom means that you are not developing psychosis and schizophrenia. When developing those disorders, people slowly lose their sense of self and wouldn't be able to rationally question whether they were viewing reality normally or not, Plus, these severe illnesses come with a lot more symptoms e.g. delusions and aggression.

Everyone feels spaced-out and floaty when tired, notices pretty colours more after caffeine, and everyone feels slightly wobbly when unwell. We are the same as these neurotypical people who will never even consider that they may have something as strange as "derealisation disorder"; the difference is that we obsess. We hyperfocus and chase scary thoughts down paths that our brains aren't prepared to let us go down constantly.

Reality Isn't Fixed (Or A Real Concept)! Some Strangeness Is Normal!

It is comforting to know that derealisation is simply a result of anxiety and unnecessary fear/focus, but this may seem unconvincing to you. You might want to tell me "but my derealisation disorder is so intense, it must be schitzophrenia etc.". If you feel that way, then I want you to do a lot of research on the changeability of our perception of reality. The concept of a fixed, stable perception of the world is totally unfounded and improbable. Diet, medication, hormones and neurotransmitters change your sober reality constantly, and your mood.

People who take LSD (which was originally extracted from a type of fungus) lose all contact with the "normal reality" that they are used to. After the chemical wears off, they see reality as they did before again. It's a wild experience and can be scary, but doesn't hurt them in any way.

A changed reality is not necessarily a negative thing, it just "is", and it's something you need to become comfortable with. If you're anxious, you will be producing a lot of adrenaline which acts on nearly all the body's cells. It also disrupts cortisol levels and can lead to hormonal syndromes such as adrenal fatigue. None of these are particularly harmful, but they WILL affect the levels of chemicals in your brain and they will lead to some dissociative feelings/will make you see reality differently to how you did before you became so consumed by anxiety.

So, how is your brain creating such a strange phenomenon? Because it's not hard to change the way that you see the world. Try getting blackout drunk and you'll start to see blurry shapes. That's essentially your reality changing, just as it does when you obsess over derealisation. Does it harm you? No, it's just symptomatic of drinking alcohol. The organ damage is the worrying thing.

Altered reality is fine and normal. We all see the world in different ways as we go through the day. Don't let it scare you, because this will always be something you'll experience. You're just noticing it because you're introspective, intelligent AND are currently suffering badly with anxiety. You'll always be anxiety prone but won't always be living as a slave to the condition.

"I Can't Survive If This Is All That's Real"

How To Overcome Derealisation

  • logically think back to all the times that you've felt intensely derealised in public or in another scary situation. You felt like you were falling down a slippery slope and about to be sucked into a cartoon show, but that level of insanity never happened, right? You were always fine. The worst it gets is thinking "this is weird and horrible, I want this feeling to go away". The panic attacks only happen when you indulge yourself and let yourself fall deeper into that thought. Direct yourself away from panic each time. I've done it at my worst and so can you
  • STOP thinking that you need to "assess" whether reality appears normal or strange each day. This is exactly the kind of thinking that obsessive people like us fall into, but all it will do is worsen the situation. Remember, derealisation is something you experience only because you're so strangely worried about whether things are "real or not".
  • However reality looks, you need to just go with the flow. Tell yourself "reality just is, it isn't fixed". Something that really helped me was to think "if I were stoned right now, I wouldn't be scared, I'd be enjoying the altered reality". And, when people are stoned, they get by fine in public, just walking alone at their own pace immersed in their own perception of the world. You can do the same in your dissociated state! Nothing bad happens.
  • Realise you are alone in your feelings, but instead of finding that scary, use it to motivate you to chill, and to stop obsessing over the pessimistic thoughts that I've addressed in this article. Nobody can tell you that you're okay. You need to feel it for yourself by relaxing and realising that 1. the derealisation doesn't hurt you and that 2. after time, you create new pathways away from the unhealthy fixation on reality and it actually goes away (often quickly).
  • Stop thinking of it as "my derealisation". That introduces the false notion that you're either in sober reality OR you're in some dreamlike trance, when it's quite the contrary. As I've explained, reality isn't ever the same, so it can't be "right" or "wrong" in this way. It's just a big spectrum and we all experience the same life situations in very different ways, due to food, caffeine, emotion, fear etc. Stop yourself stepping out of the house and thinking "today it's either going to be normal or scary dream state", since that is obviously not going to help you forget about this issue.

Some Vitamins I Recommend

Taking high quality flaxseed oil seemed to help me step out of my anxious, neurotic state. In turn, my derealisation lessened. It seems that flaxseed is the vegan version of cod liver oil and aids brain recovery. Who knows whether it helped or whether my psychological self-care helped, but it might be worth a try.

Then, I recommend that you all take a B-complex, vitamin D3 and not much more. It's essential that you eat enough protein and a wide range of fruit and veg. Don't get caught up in the supplement game, but do try flaxseed as it might also help you!

MSM worsened my anxiety and triggered a severe derealisation episode. Stay away from that supplement.

What Are The Benefits of Derealisation?

I truly believe that there is nothing as scary as the experience of derealisation and consequent panic attacks. It really is living in terror, and it's worse than schizophrenia or psychosis in some ways because there is complete lucidity (this alone proves that it is NOT going to progress into those conditions, so worry not). You are completely aware of how you "should" be experiencing reality, and this allows intense fixation and anxiety.

If you can get through the worst points of anxiety-induced derealisation, then nothing within reality should really scare or upset you. If you find yourself upset about friendship issues, work or illness, you can remind yourself that the fact that you're worrying about these things means that you are within reality and no longer dealing with derealisation issues. You should feel grateful and blessed to be freed from something you've suffered so badly with.

In some ways, derealisation shows you exactly how scary it is when the brain glitches, and experiencing it can and should put you off using drugs. It shows you that you're very prone to anxiety and hyperfocused states, which can be useful to know.

Mainly, however, experiencing derealisation is an insanely interesting experience, akin to something like lucid dreaming in terms of enlightenment. It really changes your perspective of the world. Having experienced something so strange reminds me that reality really is down to your perspective. I am far more lenient when judging the personalities of people I meet now, and I tend to panic less when faced with real-life dilemmas. I am aware that my stressed, sober day-to-day viewpoint isn't absolute judgement or authority, and that I should leave doors open in my life.

Derealisation

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Thank You For Reading!

Please take the time to fill out the polls and leave a comment, so that we can all help each other through this craziness. Thank you so much for reading until the end!

© 2017 Lucy

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