A Powerful Way to Deal With Depersonalization (or Any Anxiety Condition)

Anxiety. Sometimes it just sneaks up on you.

You can be doing all the right things – eating well, exercising, meditating. But still, feelings of anxiety can just appear out of nowhere. Suddenly you have to deal with racing thoughts, heart palpitations, maybe even a full-blown panic attack.

The symptoms and conditions that anxiety produces vary greatly from person to person. For me it was depersonalization, a sense of being cut off from reality, like you’re dreaming all the time. It was horrible and the symptoms were particularly frightening.

And like all anxiety conditions, what was most frightening was the lack of control I seemed to have over it. But here’s a great tip I found incredibly useful:

You may not always be able to control the anxiety.

But you can always control your reaction to it.

And that’s a lot more powerful than you might think!

Take panic attacks, for example. The initial scary thought that sets it off might be something really small. A thought that for most people would last a few seconds and then fade away naturally.

It’s your reaction to it that sets off the spiralling thoughts and eventually, a full-blown panic attack.

But if you can recognize that initial scary thought for what it is (just a thought!), you automatically change your reaction to it. And by not overreacting to it, you can reduce the anxiety and even stop the panic attack completely.

Let’s look at this from another angle. Let’s say you’ve just had a panic attack. What’s the most effective thing to do? Sit around, feeling sorry for yourself, dreading the next panic attack? Of course not. That’ll only worsen your fear and increase the likelihood of another one happening.

Instead, don’t overreact. Distract yourself. Keep your mind occupied. Stay busy. Play an instrument, take a walk, meet up with a friend. That reaction teaches your brain that even though the panic attack has just happened, it hasn’t affected you.

 When your brain registers that these feelings can bring your day to a halt, it confirms that anxiety is ‘big’ and ‘important’. But when you go about your day regardless of any panic attacks, depersonalization or any other form of anxiety? Your brain registers that anxiety is not ‘big’ or ‘important’!

Think of anxiety like a spoiled child. It throws tantrums to get attention. And the more attention you pay to it, the more attention it demands. But if you just let the tantrum happen and go about your day? The child sees that tantrums don’t get him anywhere — and will eventually stop using them!

The same goes for all feelings of anxiety: Don’t overreact to them.

Accept that the feelings are there. Let the ‘tantrum’ happen. It can’t hurt you. And then immediately focus on something constructive and engaging.

This technique is especially useful as you start to recover from any anxiety. You’ll find that you have some good days and some bad days. It’s a natural part of recovery!

 But again — the trick is not to overreact.

When you have a bad day, don’t be disappointed or feel sorry for yourself. Just accept that you feel a little anxious, and stay busy. And it may seem counterintuitive, but when you have a good day, don’t celebrate!

This teaches your brain that anxiety is not important, in either positive or negative terms. That puts the unwanted thoughts and feelings into perspective and allows them to fade away and disappear — which is exactly what they’re supposed to do. 

This simple technique was invaluable in my recovery from depersonalization disorder, but can be used with any anxiety condition. It teaches your brain that feelings of anxiety, no matter how intense they might get, are ultimately not that important.

There’s a great saying in mindfulness: “Engage with useful thoughts, disengage from the others.”

 Anxious thoughts are not useful. So disengage from them by not overreacting to them.


About the Author: Shaun O Connor

Shaun O Connor is the author of The Depersonalization Manual, a book which details his recovery from Depersonalization disorder and provides a complete guide to recovery for sufferers of the condition. First published as an ebook in 2007, it has since expanded to become a complete recovery package and has sold over 9,000 copies worldwide.

Shaun is also a multi award-winning television and film director whose work has screened around the world, including at the Dublin, Helsinki and Boston Film Festivals.

Twitter: @DPManual

64 Comments

Mary

I became depersonalized many years ago. I woke up disconnected from reality. The storage part is that night I had a horrid nightmare that felt so real. Next thing I know I’m like this.I get this weird feeling in my head that’s hard to explain. I just recently came across info about brain fog, memory and other symptoms that make up DP/DR being connected to the neck. It’s a sign of massive compression. Going to see if this may be my solution.

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Marilyn

Thank You for this information of a very scary feeling. I wish that I would have known about it then, when it had happened to me, but I didn’t know what it was. It felt so real, and so scary. Remembering it still now, it still scares me. I had no control of it then. I am still afraid of loosing control. I did not find these feelings helpful then. They caused me to get locked in a mental hospital. These feelings (I learn now) were protecting me, and yet, I felt that they were destroying me. I had to them, and I did. I had to hide them, so that no one would know, so that I would not be locked up in a mental hospital again. I am so glad reading this now. It shows me that I was not crazy, even that this thing was, and I felt helpless in being that. I am glad knowing now that it was not my fault in feeling these crazy things, and that I was not the only one feeling them. This information is very important to any trauma survivors. Everyone should know it, so that if something like this happens again (I hope not) but at least that then it would be known what it really was, and not to be afraid of it. That fear in me was real, and just like with now with the depression, or panic attacks, I can’t control it completely. At least now I know it, and I accept for what it really was, and not for what my mind had caused me to believe. That believe was terrifying, and I am glad that I have survived it.

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Anonymous

I’m 18 and I’m not sure if what I have is dp but from what I’ve found I think it is. I just have this strange feeling all the time like I’m looking at everything from a different perspective. It’s hard to focus and sometimes I find my self thinking about certain things with out trying to, as if my subconscious is in the drivers seat. It’s hard to focus and it makes me tired all the time but it gets worse If I sleep during the day. It started a few days ago after I took an hour nap and woke back up and went to bed before I had to go to work the next morning ever since then it’s gotten slightly better but I can still notice it with out a problem. I do have a lot of stress with school, work, and a failing relationship with my girlfriend, and I recently made a decision to stop vaping after trying a few times and failing. I’ve never experienced anything like this before and want to know if I should go to the doctor or do something to make it better. I don’t even know how to describe it to anyone and I’ve only told two people. I just need answers.

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Justice

Hi Shaun
I’m 18 years but I started having this DP when i was 17,a day before my birthday and ever since it’s been months and I read about others who get well in days and I thought mine was different, but recently I was starting to feel better but it got worse again, I don’t know what to do

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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