One of the lesser known symptoms of anxiety is dissociation, which is the feeling of detachment from your surrounding or feeling like your surroundings are not real. According to researcher Atilla Tekin from Istanbul’s Halic University, the most common symptoms of dissociation seen in connection with anxiety are depersonalization and derealization.
Depersonalization is feeling detached from your body. It might seem as if you are outside your body observing what is happening rather than participating in your surroundings and experiences.
Derealization is the feeling that the world around you isn’t real.
According to researchers at the University of Washington, some of the other symptoms or signs of dissociation include:
- Spacing out or day dreaming
- Having a glazed look or staring at something without really seeing it
- Feeling as if your mind went blank
- Having a sense that things around you aren’t real
- Feeling like you are watching yourself as if having an out of body experience
- Feeling detached from your identity
The symptoms of depersonalization and derealization are thought to be a coping mechanism, according to the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD). For example, when facing a distressing or anxiety-producing situation, you tune out in order to avoid dealing with the situation. It is often seen in those who suffered from a severe childhood trauma. However, people with PTSD or panic disorder might also have these symptoms.
One of the dangers, according to ISSTD, is that this type of coping can become chronic and then it becomes difficult to differentiate situations that are dangerous from those that are perceived as dangerous. In other words, it can erode your ability to cope with everyday situations.
The feelings are both disconcerting and frightening.
As of now, there isn’t any evidence-based treatment, according to researchers at Kings College. Over the years, a number of different types of treatment have been tried with varying success. These include psychotherapy, electroconvulsive treatment, antipsychotic medication and antidepressants. The more promising treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and anti-convulsant medication.
One method used in CBT is called grounding. In this, the therapist guides you to consciously reconnect to the here and now. Some of the steps your therapist might use include:
- Getting your attention by waving a hand or snapping fingers to make direct eye connection
- Discussing what happened – for example, what your were thinking about before the dissociation, why it might have happened and what happened during the time you feel dissociated
- Using different methods to bring you back to the present moment. For example, having you describe what you see around you or using different senses, such as placing an ice cube on your arm and asking you to talk about how it feels or asking you to count how many green items you see in the room.
Once you determine which types of situations might cause you to feel depersonalization or derealization, your therapist might use exposure therapy to slowly have you engage in these situations without dissociation occurring.
If depersonalization and derealization symptoms are interfering with your daily life, it’s best to work with a professional. However, if you experience symptoms mildly or occasionally, consider creating your own grounding activity.
Pay attention to the first signs of depersonalization and derealization. Accept that it is happening and remind yourself that it is not dangerous. Remind yourself that it is a symptom of anxiety, and it does not mean that there is something wrong with your mind or that you are going crazy. Remind yourself that it goes away.
Create a mindfulness exercise you can use to bring yourself back to the present moment. You want to have an activity you can perform that requires you to focus.
Some examples include:
- Hold an ice cube to your arm and focus on the cold and the sensations
- Look at a specific object and describe it in detail. Use as many senses as possible, including touching the object, smelling it, looking at it. Describe how it if feels with different senses.
- Count (number of blue objects, how many circular objects) and as you count, state aloud what each object is and where it is
Part of the strategy is to wait it out and let it pass.
It’s important to seek out treatment for anxiety. Treating your anxiety symptoms can lessen the frequency and intensity of depersonalization and derealization episodes, as well as provide you with coping strategies for managing your anxiety levels and emotions so you don’t reach the point of dissociation.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.