We're all daydreamers at some point in our lives, if not most of the time, like yours truly. Sometimes when we’re bored, or we’re listening to a powerful song, or just looking out the window on the bus home, our brain has this amazing ability to be aware of our surroundings and, at the same time, imagine fantastic scenarios triggered by a word you heard, playing out entire scenes in your head, or imagining yourself dancing to the song you’re listening to. Sigmund Freud believed that daydreams, just like those images we see in our sleep, are a mechanism that helps us release a little bit of the unconscious load our minds carry. Nonetheless, what would happen if, more than just daydreaming, you suddenly start feeling like your surroundings aren’t real at all, to the point that you start questioning your own existence and identity? Reality starts feeling like a dream, in which you’re just there, acting, but you’re not you, and your surroundings aren’t there at all. You feel like an automat, or as if you could see the lines of green numbers that compose the matrix, but unlike Neo, you can’t control yourself or your surroundings. You are able to see everything and act, as you do in dreams, but you’re aware of this detachment.
The situation I just described is one that many people all over the world often have to deal with. No, this is not your average daydream, but a mental condition that might come with others like anxiety, seizures, substance abuse, or other personality disorders. Depersonalization basically consists of the sensation of being disconnected from your environment, as well as from your body and thoughts. That’s why you might feel like you’re trapped in a dream in which, however, you're conscious of your own detachment.
According to a survey by the Health Research Funding, about 50% of adults in the US will suffer one or two episodes of depersonalization in their life. These episodes aren't necessarily linked with other mental disorders, and that’s why it’s quite likely that at some point in our lives we will go through an episode of depersonalization. However, it is considered a disorder if it happens frequently and affects your performance in everyday actions and your relationship with others.
Although depersonalization can have different causes, like post-traumatic stress, seizures, or brain disease, the same study points out that the main trigger in these episodes is stress. So, for instance, war veterans, rape survivors, or people who've had serious accidents, survived natural disasters, or witnessed violence are more likely to have these episodes. The same can happen to people who received head injuries or if they live with seizure disorder. The thing about depersonalization is that it works as an "escape" for your brain when it’s under stress. It’s as if your unconscious mind had an “eject” button that suddenly detaches you from your reality, creating that sensation of strangeness with your surroundings. Moreover, another common symptom is the sensation that you’re not in control of your actions and thoughts. Of course, it doesn’t mean that your body is acting on its own, but that's what it feels like.
The lack of discussion about this disorder, and the difficulty to describe it, makes those who live with it think that they might be losing touch with reality and, paradoxically, this fear makes the stress they live with even worse. However, depersonalization isn’t related to psychotic disorders, because at least you are aware of what is happening with your mind, whereas people with schizophrenia, for instance, remain in their inner world during psychotic episodes. This sensation and the fear that comes with it can also increase due to the fact that during depersonalization episodes you can feel like your body or the things around you are distorted. But that is an effect of the anxiety that the episode generates because your body enhances its senses and slightly alters your perception of the world.
Of course, it’s important to note that these episodes aren’t like when you’re disconnecting from your world while you listen to music. They all come with this set of symptoms, as well as others that a psychologist or a psychiatrist can determine. So, if you think you've experienced these symptoms, consult specialists who will help you treat it the best way possible.
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