Depersonalisation and derealisation

If you find yourself experiencing depersonalisation or derealisation there’s always help available and ways to cope and recover.

What are depersonalisation and derealisation?

Depersonalisation and derealisation are defence mechanisms that the mind employs to help it cope with too much stress.

  • Depersonalisation is the feeling of being disconnected from your own body or when your body feels unreal
  • Derealisation is the feeling of being disconnected from the things around you or when your surroundings seem unreal.

For some people these feelings may last for a few minutes or a few hours. They are surprisingly common – one survey found that 23% of people have had these feelings for a short period of time. It’s a natural response to highly stressful situations.

For other people these feelings may last much longer, be distressing and impact on daily life, and they may have depersonalisation- derealisation disorder. 1% of people have this disorder, which is the same percentage as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Most people who experience it will have a mix of both depersonalisation and derealisation, but you can have just one or the other too. It’s important to remember that the symptoms of depersonalisation and derealisation are different for each person.

What it feels like?

Depersonalisation symptoms

  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feels like you’re not real
  • Feels like you’re on auto-pilot
  • Feels like you’re outside your body and mind
  • Feeling like a robot
  • Feel as if your thinking processes aren’t working properly – like brain fog.

Derealisation symptoms

  • Feels like you’re in a dream or movie
  • Feel disconnected from life
  • Feels like everything is fake
  • Feels like you’re in a bubble or behind glass
  • Distortion in your perception of time, distance and the things around you.

What are the causes?

There are 4 main triggers for chronic depersonalisation or derealisation.

  • Anxiety: Experiencing a lot of anxiety that accumulates through adolescence.
  • Psychological and physical trauma: Going through traumatic experiences can cause your mind to disconnect from reality as a way of dealing with this.
  • Bad reaction to mind altering drugs: Like cannabis or amphetamines. Some people can get very frightened and have a panic attack when on these drugs which can cause depersonalisation or derealisation.
  • Depression: This can be a more gradual onset for depersonalisation or derealisation.

For all the triggers the mind is under a lot of strain and as a way of coping disconnects from reality.

It’s possible to recover from depersonalisation or derealisation. Some people recover naturally by treating the triggers, this reduces the strain on the mind which allows it to recover. Some people may need clinical help to recover.

What to do if you think you may have depersonalisation or derealisation?

Although your symptoms may feel scary, worrying about them could make them worse. Try to find ways to stay calm as for most people their symptoms will go away naturally. Our Calm Zone could help you stay calm.

The next thing to do is to try and let your mind recover. You can help your mind by trying to reduce the impact of the trigger(s) that is causing your depersonalisation or derealisation.

If you recognise yourself experiencing any of the 4 triggers above you may be experiencing depersanalisation or derealisation and there are things you can try to reduce their impact. Different things will work for different people, it’s important to find what works for you and to stop trying something if it’s making you feel worse.

  • To reduce anxiety you can try some of the ideas on our coping with anxiety page and you can also visit our Calm Zone
  • You can talk to a Childline counsellor about what you’re going through. You can talk through feelings of anxiety, depression or any difficult experiences that you may have been through
  • You can stop taking mind altering drugs (like cannabis or amphetamines).

If after a few weeks you still have symptoms of depersonalisation or derealisation then you can get support from your GP. We have advice on visiting your doctor.

What to do if people aren’t supportive

A lot of people aren’t aware of what depersonalisation and derealisation is. You can help explain it to your parent or carer by showing them this webpage. You can also speak to your school nurse about it and get their support. Your mental health is important and you deserve to get the support you need.

Before visiting your GP you can fill in this questionnaire and give to them, don't worry if you are unable to fill all of it in, just do what you can.

If you aren’t happy with the support you’re receiving then you can always talk to Childline about it.

Ways to cope

There are things you can try to help you cope with depersonalisation or derealisation. Different things will work for different people. It’s important to find what works for you and to stop doing anything that makes you feel worse.