Depersonalization Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Depersonalization Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Depersonalization disorder is a mental health condition that causes a person to feel distant or detached from their body. Many people with this condition have episodes of feeling like they are living outside their reality or watching themselves from the outside. 

About 3 out of 4 adults in the United States will experience a depersonalization episode once in their lives, but only 2% of them will develop depersonalization disorder. 

Symptoms of depersonalization disorder often come and go and may be worsened by stress. Treatment options vary based on your symptoms and how frequently you experience them. Psychotherapy is usually an effective treatment.

Depersonalization disorder is a type of dissociative disorder—a group of mental health conditions that affect a person’s memory, identity, and sense of self. In addition to depersonalization disorder, other types of dissociative disorders include:

  • Derealization disorder: A feeling of detachment from your reality or surroundings
  • Dissociative identity disorder: A feeling of disconnection between your thoughts, feelings, and actions
  • Dissociative amnesia: An inability to remember information about yourself

If you live with depersonalization disorder, symptoms can often come and go. You might experience the following symptoms:

  • Feeling detached from yourself
  • Inability to recognize or describe your emotions
  • Feeling like you’re watching yourself from the outside
  • Emotional numbness
  • Distorted speech or movements
  • Feeling like your memories are not your own
  • The sensation that your body or limbs are not attached to you

Depersonalization disorder occurs when a person feels disconnected from their body or sense of self. Researchers believe that depersonalization disorder may be a type of coping mechanism for people who have experienced trauma such as childhood abuse or violence. A severe lack of sleep, an overstimulating environment, and certain recreational drugs may also cause symptoms of depersonalization. 

Risk Factors

While anyone can experience depersonalization, some people have a higher risk of developing the disorder. Common risk factors for this condition include:

  • Being assigned female at birth
  • Having a history of recreational drug use 
  • Living with underlying mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or panic attacks
  • Undergoing or witnessing a traumatic event
  • Experiencing an inability to adapt to challenging situations 

It is not uncommon to experience a fleeting out-of-body experience. In fact, 75% of American adults have a dissociative episode at least once in their lives. But if you feel that you’re experiencing depersonalization too often, seeing a healthcare provider can help you understand your symptoms and get the treatment you need, if necessary. 

When you see your primary care provider or a therapist you’re regularly meeting with about your symptoms, they may refer you to a psychiatrist for proper diagnosis and treatment. A psychiatrist will conduct several tests and questionnaires to determine an accurate diagnosis. During the diagnostic process, a psychiatrist will also try to rule out other conditions that could be causing your symptoms, such as: 

To be diagnosed with depersonalization disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (also known as the DSM-5) has the following criteria:

  • Persistent or recurring episodes of depersonalization or derealization 
  • Knowledge that what you are experiencing is not real
  • Inability to function in daily life due to symptoms 

If you receive a diagnosis for depersonalization disorder, the goal of treatment is to address past trauma and reduce current symptoms. While there are no medications that can currently treat this condition, psychotherapy is the gold standard treatment that helps many people improve their symptoms. Your healthcare team may recommend one of the following therapy options:

It may not be possible to prevent depersonalization disorder altogether. That’s because the most common risk factor for this condition is childhood trauma. However, if you have lived through trauma, there are some steps you can take to lower your risk of developing depersonalization disorder, such as: 

  • Getting enough sleep every night
  • Taking breaks from overstimulating environments
  • Avoiding recreational drugs and alcohol
  • Seeing a therapist for support

People with depersonalization disorder may also have an increased risk of other mental health conditions, such as:

  • Derealization disorder: A dissociative disorder that causes a person to believe that their surroundings are not real
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A mental health condition that develops in response to experiencing a traumatic or terrifying situation
  • Acute stress disorder: A condition that occurs immediately after experiencing a traumatic or stressful event

While many people experience an episode of depersonalization at least once in their lifetime, only 2% of them live with depersonalization disorder. Common symptoms of depersonalization disorder include feeling like you’re detached from your sense of self and living outside of your body.

Living in this mental state can seem scary or overwhelming. However, seeing a healthcare provider can help you get the treatment you need. While there is no cure for this condition, therapy can significantly improve symptoms and quality of life.

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