Depersonalization: The curious case of losing touch with reality

An introduction to our mind’s “alternate reality” depersonalization and derealization disorder.

The way our mind defends itself from the outer world can be quite impressive, every day we are confronted with situations that require our attention, be it our jobs, private life, social media, advertisements, family messages, news and so on.  Sometimes you wake up and you feel like you’re floating into space; you’re not feeling like yourself and still, there you go, trying to continue with your schedule.  You notice you’re being a bit more clumsy or not able to concentrate, it’s like watching yourself act and not participating in your own life.

“I find myself regarding existence as though from beyond the tomb, from another world; all is strange to me; I am, as it were, outside my own body and individuality; I am depersonalized, detached, cut adrift. Is this madness?” – Henri Frédéric Amiel 

Some of the causes can be major depressive episodes, panic attacks, high amounts of stress, childhood trauma, the intake of drugs, anxiety or simply, everyday life. This can be a double-edged sword because it manifests as a self-defense mechanism.  Your brain is trying to spare you from further feelings of anxiety, sadness, and insecurity or it can become part of your life for long periods of time, as it can last hours, weeks, days or years, making it a very influential factor that shapes our personality or it can be the cause of harming behavior.

But what’s the difference now between depersonalization and derealization because they often come together as a pack and are even diagnosed together. The first is a state of losing sense with yourself, your identity and body, and the second one is losing the sense of your surroundings. Everything is unreal, like in a movie or behind a wall of glass seeing your own reflection before you, a copy of yourself you can’t recognize.

Our renowned Viennese scientist Sigmund Freud first encountered derealization while visiting the Acropolis during a trip to Athens in 1904. In an open letter, written to Romain Rolland he described, “So all this really does exist, just as we learned at school!”. In this letter he also mentioned he felt a “fleeting attack of derealization” even though, he had read about the ruins for years, seeing the real thing was apparently proven to be so overwhelming that he just lost touch with reality.

These de-realizations are remarkable phenomena, which are still little understood. They are spoken of as “sensations”, but they are obviously complicated processes, attached to particular mental contents and bound up with decisions made about those contents. They arise very frequently in certain mental diseases, but they are not unknown among normal people, just as hallucinations occasionally occur in the healthy.”— Freud

It not only happens due to stress, and the previously discussed causes, but it can also happen spontaneously, unrelated to a particular traumatic moment. Some of these can be caused by silent trauma that are so complex to register consciously, by our own or even the constant influx of information that we are exposed to every day, let it be news, media, trivialities that make our mind process all kinds of content in less than three minutes, to a point where one reaches a so-called “burn out”.

Elena Bezzubova, psychoanalyst working for the New Center for Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles states: Depersonalization appears as a kind of “airbag” built-in the human psychological structure to be employed in the threatening situations of stress, panic or trauma.”  Indeed a very interesting and unusual way of our brain to act like in “sleep mode” even when we are wide-awake.

Cover photo by Tyler Lastovich 

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About Armi Mujica

Armi is passionate about literature and philosophy, studied sciences in communications and audiovisual production in Venezuela, a restless traveler and thinker currently based in Vienna

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