Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The “Airbag” of Depersonalization: Shield or Disorder?

The painful experience of unreality safeguards from danger.

Infamous as one of the most painful disorders, depersonalization is also a safeguard, protecting from danger.

The emergence of depersonalization at the edge of stress can be compared with the explosion of an airbag at the edge of a car crash. The fog of unreality shields from psychological traumas like an exploded airbag protects from physical injuries. The fog of unreality falls as a barrier between person and trauma as if virtually removing this person from a threatening situation.

This defensive function of depersonalization is most evident in trauma, acute anxiety, and panic attacks. When the level of panic reaches a certain threshold, depersonalization comes as a savior; continuing the comparison, as if a threshold of mechanical shock triggers the explosion of an airbag. 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. Depersonalization is a very complex defense system that requires a high level of mental organization.

In contrast to animal life where traumatic accidents are resolved by flight or fight, human life is rich in situations where neither flight nor fight is possible. Depersonalization represents a third way of coping that allows a person to escape or alleviate the traumatic situation.

The uniqueness of this sort of escape is that it develops in the subjective world of the person's psyche. Experience of depersonalization removes the person from trauma psychically and subjectively while remaining in it physically and objectively. Depersonalization and derealization create subjective feelings of unreality: “I am not myself,” “I feel detached,” and “The world is not real.”

This feeling of “detachment from the world” provides the detachment from trauma, anxiety or panic, alleviating emotional and psychological threat. People with depersonalization describe the experience of a gap, screen or wall between them and the world, often experienced together with estrangement from their own feelings, including extremely traumatic panic and fear. Thus, the “cotton of depersonalization” saves from the trauma of emotional or psychological distress, but at the same time creates the trauma of feeling unreal. Diminishing the pain of trauma, the cocoon of depersonalization keeps a person trapped “inside unreality.”

During his mission trip to South Asia, a student was deeply touched by the dramatic life of a local girl from a shelter. Her beauty and naiveté contrasted with her poverty, homelessness, and broken life. He succeeded to arrange funds for her and secure her place in the shelter. Finally, he realized that he was deeply in love with her and she seemed to love him back. He returned home but stayed closely in touch with the girl. His love was getting stronger. He could not wait to see her next summer.

When he arrived, she was pregnant from a local drug dealer. A part of him felt angry and insulted. Another part was attached to her even more, determining to save her and win her love again. She played with him, one day being nice and loving, and another day cynical and cold. The mission was coming to its end and his emotional storm was growing. Torn by pain and anxiety, he felt that he was “losing his foundation.” The evening that he planned to have a “final talk with her,” she came to their mission with her friends, “drunk and seductive.” While they all were sitting around the fire, seeing her provocatively touching another man, the student began to feel “an internal tremor, a growing wave of anxiety, suffocating and crashing, as if I am going crazy.” Suddenly, the “devastating tsunami of anxiety is diminishing by a fog. I saw her face smiling at that man removed and estranged. The whole world became distant. I felt disconnected and mechanical.” Months later, when he almost recovered from this traumatic relationship, the feeling of being “disconnected from the world” was still present.

In contrast to this case, many other instances of depersonalization do not relate to a particular traumatic moment. Some of these instances belong to situations of hidden or silent trauma. In such situations, a person does experience trauma, but the nature of this trauma is so delicate and complex that the person avoids registering it consciously. Therapy becomes an exploration that could lead to the discovery of this hidden trauma. Understanding of such silent trauma could be of significant help in reducing depersonalization.

Anne, a college junior – an A+ student and a strong leader, who “used to masterfully hide my secret shyness” – complained of aggressive depersonalization that “arises out of the blue.” The girl said that it happened in the middle of a nice Sunday afternoon. She and her boyfriend were babysitting her parents' dog while they were away. The couple was having a good time. “Out of nowhere, I felt sick.” Strange nausea, a sort of vertigo turned into a strange experience of a “blurred world.” Worried that something was wrong with her vision, she went to an eye doctor. The feeling of unreality of the world and she herself remained.

The first difficulty we later encountered in therapy was that everything in her life seemed simply good. The exception was this bad depersonalization. Anne agreed with my comment that the way she was talking seemed too neutral, as if she was keeping a distance from what she described.

Recalling again that afternoon when her depersonalization first emerged, she mentioned that the music she and her boyfriend were listening to was one that irritated her father. Anne added that her dog was chewing her mom’s red leggings, “not age-appropriate as mom’s other clothes.” Trying to understand what made her think about her parents while enjoying time with her boyfriend, Anne shared that under the “façade of the perfect family” there were some carefully hidden troubles: her father was seeing another woman and her mom “never loved him.”

First Anne believed that she “has her own life and does not really care” about their problems.” Then she realized that she is anxious and “bewildered by different feelings toward my parents,” including love, dependence, envy, and anger. “I do not want to see even the slightest possibility that they can divorce.” The process of understanding the reality of her family situation was helpful in gaining Anne’s own identity and the reality of her self and the world around her.

This combination of protective and damaging qualities of depersonalization relates to the phenomena of dissociation. Human mental organization allows us to focus on one part of an experience while barely noticing another. The dissociative spectrum varies from complete avoidance of the perception of potentially traumatic events to their partial recognition. Dissociation allows an individual to deal with acceptable parts of trauma at the conscious level while repressing the intolerable traumatic part into the unconscious. Therapeutic work casts the light of consciousness on this hidden disturbing part, facilitating its understanding and respectfully moving toward integration of personal identity. Depersonalization is often rooted in the dissociation of self, and personalization is based on the experience of the whole integrated self.

More from Elena Bezzubova Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today