Anchoring Yourself in Reality
What to do when reality doesn't seem real.
Posted Nov 09, 2019
Imagine feeling like everyone you know, everything around you, everything you are thinking and feeling are fake. Imagine that your senses, informing you of what is currently happening in your first-person experience, can't be trusted. Imagine that instead of being in the here-and-now, you feel like a detached observer, watching yourself from a disconnected vantage point with no possible way to reconnect yourself to reality.
No, this isn't the plot of Christopher Nolan's movie Inception. This is a real phenomenon that people deal with every day. And before you start thinking the experience sounds kind of cool, I can assure you, it's not.
Feeling disconnected from reality is an awful experience. When you don't feel connected to your body or thoughts, it can feel like you're not in control of yourself, like you're detached from reality. In other words, you feel like you can't trust your senses or your surroundings. It feels as if you are losing your very sense of self.
Clinical terms used to describe this experience are:
- Depersonalization — An internal feeling of disconnection from oneself, i.e., self-estrangement.
- Derealization — An external feeling of disconnection from one's surroundings.
- Dissociation — Detachment from one's physical and emotional experience.
Depersonalization, derealization, and dissociation (what I'll call going forward "DDD") have been informally described as a psychotic break, feeling numb, an out-of-body experience, or disconnection from reality. The experience of DDD can be short-term, lasting a few minutes, or it can be long-term, lasting years. The experience can be so disorienting that some people commit suicide while having an episode.
Typically, DDD is associated with psychoses; however, people suffering from severe depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, drug intoxication, and some personality disorders can experience DDD. A study also linked DDD with childhood trauma and maltreatment and found that treatment of DDD with medications has not been shown to be effective.
Advantages and Disadvantages of DDD
There is a caveat worthy of mention regarding DDD. DDD has a survival function when someone is experiencing a traumatic incident. When people are experiencing intense trauma, i.e., domestic violence and abuse, rape, warfare, a violent attack, and so on, the brain will detach from the first-person experience and shift one's perception to that of an observer. And, in some regards, this is a preferable perceptual vantage point than the first-person experience.
Think of it: Would you want to experience every moment, every pain, every rush of fear, terror, shock, and horror of being raped? No, of course not. You'd much rather be detached from the experience. The true horror is when someone doesn't detach, and they experience every excruciating moment of their trauma.
That being said, the manifestation of DDD in non-trauma situations, which are persistent and chronic, can make life near impossible. What was adaptive in a survival situation becomes maladaptive in normal life. Normal life is filled with emotional experiences, good and bad, that are appropriate to feel. But DDD sabotages normal emotional experience so that when you are experiencing joy, pleasure, contentment, happiness, closeness, and excitement, the feelings are quickly anesthetized and replaced with a numb feeling.
DDD is an emotion killer. Emotions are critical for healthy functioning. In other words, without emotion, you cannot process grief, learn from experience, and feel the joys of life.
DDD sufferers experience intense anxiety because they don't know when an episode of DDD will hit them. And, in fact, the anxiety of not wanting to experience DDD can actually trigger it. This is a vicious cycle that overwhelms and ensnares the DDD sufferer.
So, what can you do if you suffer from DDD? Is there hope? Are there solutions, techniques, and approaches that can help? In short, yes, there is hope. There are things you can do, behaviorally, to help yourself. And there are professionals who can provide you with counseling that can treat DDD.
Below are some suggestions to help you cope with DDD:
Professional Support: First things first, I'd recommend seeing a psychologist to get a mental health evaluation. Based on their assessment, you can see a psychiatrist to get evaluated and prescribed medication that can help.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the ability to make observations of oneself without judgment. This may seem like an ironic suggestion since part of the problem is feeling like you're an observer. But the point of this is to make first-person observations.
For example, notice what is going on in your body:
- Notice your breath and the sensation of your lungs filling with air.
- Notice any focal points of discomfort in your body.
- Notice any body sensations, such as increased heart rate, flushed face, or muscle tension.
These physiological observations reinforce the idea that you are a physical being having a bodily experience in the real world. In a way, you are getting out of your mind and into your body, firmly planting yourself in the physicality of reality. These first-person observations are very grounding. They relocate you in the here-and-now.
Knowing the Signs: Self-observations also have to do with recognition. If you can recognize that you are having a DDD episode, you can then intervene to change your experience.
Panic has a tendency to inflame DDD. Rather, know the signs of DDD, and be prepared with a plan to cope. But this is not possible unless you have an awareness of what's happening. Again, mindfulness can help you notice the precursors to a DDD episode, or help you notice the direct cues of a DDD episode.
You may notice:
- Sensations of anxiety, like feeling very alert, warm and sweaty skin, racing thoughts, and panic.
- Emotions of fear that you will never get back to reality. Emotions of dread or terror.
- Behaviors where you become drug-seeking, interpersonally defensive, or very suspicious over others' motives.
- Thoughts that seem unusual and can't be justified logically, yet feel like truth.
Stay Calm: Once you've recognized you are having a DDD episode, don't panic. Panic is like cement for DDD. If you can remain calm after becoming aware of the DDD episode, you are more likely to work your way out of it.
- Regulating your breathing by taking slow, deep breaths
- Practicing progressive muscle relaxation
- Using prepared self-talk statements that bring to mind reassuring truths
- Reaching out to others for support
Acceptance: Fighting against DDD actually gives DDD energy. DDD feeds off of your resistance. Instead, accept that you are having a DDD moment. It's OK to feel numb or detached. It's not the end of the world. You can work your way out of it. With time, it will pass. Acceptance diffuses the energy of DDD.
Positive Self-Talk: After accepting the fact that you are having a DDD moment, talk to yourself in a positive manner. Think of it like this: What would you tell your best friend if they were having a DDD moment? You'd probably say something like:
"It's going to be OK."
"You are safe."
"This isn't going to last forever."
"This will be over soon."
Use those same positive messages, but with yourself. In fact, I'd recommend making these positive self-talk statements to yourself throughout the day so that you are prepared for a DDD episode.
Self-Soothing: This concept comes from child developmental psychology. The idea is rather simple; when you are feeling emotionally flooded, regulate your feelings by soothing yourself. So, for example, when a baby is crying and finds their thumb, that is self-soothing.
Obviously, I'm not suggesting you start sucking your thumb, but I do suggest you develop some self-soothing strategies, such as physical exercise, watching a favorite TV-show, eating chocolate, talking to a friend, and so on. The self-soothing plan can be as unique and particular to you as you want it. If something works, then do it, just as long as you are not harming yourself or another person.
Hopefully, this information is helpful. Please do yourself a favor and do not ignore DDD. It is a mental illness that steals joy and can lead to suicide. However, it is not permanent. There are effective treatments for DDD. Seeing a counselor, working with a psychiatrist, taking medication, and using the tips provided above can help. With effort, over time, you will see change.
Simeon, D. (2004). Depersonalization disorder: A contemporary overview. CNS Drugs, 18(6): 343-354.