Derealisation by: Lucrezia Mandracchia
Last updated: 20-01-21
Note: I’m not a doctor neither a psychologist, so all those information are drawn from my experience, what my therapists taught me, and what I found valid and helpful to me. I wrote this article hoping to help someone that’s struggling to cope better with those phenomena. You are strong, you can do this!
Do you remember those cartoons where the characters are happy and everything is calm, and then a witch appears, does a spell and they find themselves into a painting? They are no more in their world, they are surrounded by painted trees, walking on a painted path under a painted sky with painted clouds. Nothing is “real” anymore around them. They are scared, they feel lost and they don’t know anymore how to get back to their reality. Well, this is just one of the multiple ways in which people can experience derealization. But what is derealization? And what are the differences between derealization and depersonalization? How does derealization manifest? How to cope with that? And how to go out of it and go back to reality?
Derealization “is a mental state where you feel detached from your surroundings. People and objects around you may seem unreal. Even so, you're aware that this altered state isn't normal.” (definition taken by the website WebMD). Everyone can experience derealization in their lifetime, but some people experience this almost every day, even more times a day, and that can be very stressful and can even lead to a panic attack. The difference between derealization and depersonalization is that for the first one you feel detached from the reality that surrounds you, whether for the last one you feel detached from your own body, and you can see it from the outside moving and doing things. Derealization experiences can be different for everyone and can also change over time. (Here I’ll describe the ones I’ve personally experienced, but if what happens to you is completely different don’t worry, your suffering is still valid!) Maybe you are walking down the street and suddenly everything around you (from buildings to people) seems to be so far from you that you feel you’ll never be able to reach those things again. Other times everything slightly blurs and becomes a little bit grayer, as a veil is covering all that is around you. Sometimes you feel like it’s just yourself trapped in a bubble or surrounded by a thin transparent glass that makes your sight so clear but keeps everything apart from you. It can also seem to you that you and the rest of the world are on two different layers, existing at the same time but unable to get in contact. But what may happen most of the time is simply perceiving, feeling deep inside you that what is around you is not real. Like, you see trees, people walking or talking to you, maybe you are even doing simple tasks like filling up a bag or vacuuming the floor, but you feel 100% sure that your soul is the only thing existing in that precise moment, not your house, not the sky, not even your body. You feel like everything is just an image showing up to you, a dream or, as I said at the beginning, a painting or a giant scale model. That can be very stressful and scaring because you feel like you will never be able to experience the world, have contact with it, and “feel” what you are living again. First of all, I want you to know it won’t last forever. It can be a matter of seconds, minutes, or even hours, but it will pass. Try to calm down yourself by repeating this to you, it’s important because the more anxious and nervous you get, the worse things will go. Derealization can lead to a panic attack if you let it take control of you, so try to remain rational the more you can to help yourself going through this. First, try to “ground” with reality. Let your senses help you and focus on your sensorial perceptions. I suggest you to choose two between taste, hearing, smell and touch. Sight is a bit out of use at the moment, you know. So, use two of them to get in touch with the real world. Choose two because with just one is easy to distract, whether with more than two you can get a bit confused. You don’t need anything: touch the edge of your t-shirt and rub it in your hand, taste the flavor inside your mouth, even if you haven’t eaten recently, smell the air, it has a smell even when it seems it doesn’t, listen to a song or simply to the sound of your feet on the road. Stick to these feelings until you don’t feel more grounded, even if derealization may not disappear you will feel more present and conscious about the situation. If you can try to talk with someone, it can be a real talk or a phone call, even an exchange of vocal notes on the phone. Also talking with your mind can be helpful. Tell it you know it feels a bit confused, that things will get better soon, but that you don’t want to indulge his strange game anymore. Also having a doudou can help you to relieve stress and touching a soft or squishy object is comforting. If you feel panic coming, breathe. Do breaths that are as long, as slow, and as deep you can. Stop what you are doing and sit down if you can. Try to get some fresh air and touch the floor or a wall with your hands and become aware that you are still here in reality, even if it may seem not. Ask for help if you need, don’t be ashamed of it. At the end, when you understand you are probably going to experience this often, if you don’t know if this strange sensation will end soon, accept it. It may be difficult at the beginning, but if you let it flow things will get easier soon. Accept it as a characteristic of your mind, as a part of you. When it happens, simply tell yourself “it’s happening, it’s ok, things can seem so scary but it’s only my perception” and, when things get so annoying, the auto irony is the best weapon you have to get through this. “Oh my gosh, brain, this doesn’t scare me anymore. You are always doing the same thing to me. Why don’t you try to be more creative? I mean, it’s boring, the same derealization every day!”.
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