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Depersonalization: A Silent Epidemic (by Shaun O’Connor)

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Depersonalization The Silent Epidemic

When I first experienced depersonalization, ten years ago, I knew nothing about it. I’d never even heard of the condition. Not in books, not in films, not even in my years of having a passing interest in psychology and spiritual practice.

When I began to experience it chronically and consistently, as a result of an intense panic attack (the first I’d ever had), it felt like I’d been shoved headfirst into some sort of alternate reality. The whole world seemed different, changed. I didn’t want to eat, drink, socialize. All I could do was focus intensely on this absolutely bizarre feeling that simply wouldn’t dissipate.

I remember lying on my bed and thinking, “What have I done to myself?” As if I had personally brought the condition on or done something to deserve it.

What is depersonalization?

Depersonalization is an anxiety-triggered feeling of being cut off from reality. It manifests in various ways but the most common symptoms are:

  • feeling as though you are in some sort of dream state,
  • feeling as though you or the people around you are not real,
  • feeling as though you have become detached from the world;
  • feeling as though you are watching your thoughts, feelings and physical self, from outside of yourself;
  • feeling as though you are not in control of your speech or your physical movements;

Most people experience it briefly at one point or another in their lives, but for some it can become a chronic, terrifying and ongoing affliction.

My own experience of depersonalization.

When I tried to describe my symptoms to my family members, they were at a loss. Attempting to verbally define what I was feeling (being stuck behind a pane of glass, unsure if I was awake or dreaming) usually resulted in a conversation so outlandish that most people simply didn’t know how to react. To others I looked like I was ok, so surely these weird thoughts were surely a passing phase.

But I was far from being ok.

In fact, those few months before I started making my first tentative steps towards recovery were the toughest thing I’ve ever had to go through. At one point, with my mind frantically searching for answers for what I was experiencing, I began to seriously question if it was possible that I had actually died on that first night of the panic attack, and that I was now in some sort of purgatorial state. Maybe I’d suffered a psychotic break? Would I ever be the same? It was terrifying to the point of incapacitation.

It was only through weeks and months of researching on the internet that, via a process of elimination and documentation, I was able to start to figure out what was happening to me.

And yet when I did find the websites that explained what I was experiencing, they were of almost no comfort whatsoever. As is standard for conditions on the anxiety spectrum, the forums were populated almost entirely by people who had not yet recovered from DP, but were actively exacerbating the condition by logging on to these sites every day in order to document their feelings. Some of these people had had the condition for decades. Why would my case be any different?

It seemed that no matter where I looked, I could either find no information on the condition at all, or terrifying portents of a future with no recovery on the horizon. It was profoundly depressing and upsetting.

This might seem like a perfect storm of circumstances, but the fact is that this is very similar what most people go through when they develop depersonalization. It is one of the most common conditions in the world almost everyone experiences it briefly at one time or another, and for one in fifty people (up to 2% of the population) it becomes chronic and unremitting.

And yet, the fact that it’s so common is absolutely not reflected in people’s’ general awareness of it. If you experience flu symptoms, you know that you’re getting a flu. If you sprain your ankle, you know what it is and how to treat it.

Even if it’s something more subjective, like a panic attack, people tend to recognise (either immediately or soon after) what they have experienced. This is because we have a cultural awareness of these things. We know them. We recognize them.

We don’t, however, recognize depersonalization. Back when I spoke my local doctor about what I was experiencing, he looked at me blankly and kept asking me if I was feeling ‘depressed’, put me on medication and recommended that I get more daily exercise. In fact, it wasn’t until 6 months later when I was seeing a psychologist that I was even able to discuss depersonalization with someone who had even a vague awareness of the condition.

That was a huge relief. I realised that until that point I had sabotaged my recovery by looking at DP forums every single day for months on end (and yet, I am still extremely grateful that I was able to access the internet and at least find an explanation, however upsetting, for what I was experiencing).

And while awareness of DP still remains at a low level, all the signs show that the number of cases is shooting up. Rates of stress and anxiety (precursors to and causes of chronic DP) are higher than ever. And as strains of marijuana become stronger, people are experiencing weed induced DP at shocking levels. I certainly don’t mean this as a condemnation of weed or drugs in general, but the insanely high strengths of many popular strains, and the culture of smoking weed casually is undoubtedly contributing to high rates of depersonalization and other anxiety-spectrum disorders.

The fact is that depersonalization is an epidemic, a terrible affliction and statistically there’s a strong chance that someone you know already has it.

And it’s time to discuss it out in the open. We need to talk about it positively We need to hear the recovery stories, the things that cause it, the fact that it is not a permanent condition. If we do that enough, maybe we’ll see a day where, when people first experience DP, they will recognize it and not assume that they are losing their mind. That simple of act of recognition, made possible through awareness, could save people months and even years of trauma, confusion and fear.


shaun-dcshorts_largeAbout the Author: Shaun O’Connor

Shaun O Connor is a filmmaker and writer from Co. Kerry, Ireland.

He is the author of The Depersonalization Manual, a book which details his recovery from chronic depersonalization and provides a complete guide to recovery for sufferers of the condition. 

First published as an ebook in 2008, it has since expanded to become a full package with an audio version, bonus supplementary materials and has sold over 7,000 copies worldwide. You can find more about Shaun’s experience with depersonalization here.

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.

See here for details of Shaun’s book, The Depersonalization Manual

You can follow Shaun on Twitter, Youtube, and Instagram.

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32 Comments

Melanie

Hi, I am not sure if I am just being 3 pm afternoon dense, but even after reading this I still do not know what DP is, really. Help me understand please.

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Hey Sigmund

Ahhh no, this is not the 3pm fog. Shaun wrote the post from a personal point of view. I love the post because it’s brave and honest, but of course it makes sense that you would want to understand what it is. He has updated the post to include a list of symptoms, and there is a hyperlink there to a site for more information. Hope this clears things up.

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Melanie

Awesome! Thanks so much Shaun and HS for the clarity. Navigating life and my phone is hard enough … 😉

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Thomas

Hello shawn! Im thomas, and i have developed dp from an intense marijuana experience and i have not yet crawled out of this horrific condition. I wish to buy your book, but i also want to ask you if you have ever heard of this: i feel meh all the time of course and distractions help and then i think about dp and such and then its bad once again, but i find that im always worried that weed has done damage to my brain when my brsin comes short or experience poor short term memory. Im in highschool and ive only smoked weed about 9 times so like 7 grams total maximum, worrying about this then gets me wondering if i was usually kinda forgetful/dumb. Does dp typically affect memory and cognition to a noticable degree? By the way i love what i have read on your website and look forward to reading the book. I have gotten past the CRIPPLING STAGE of this where ive had panic attacks and emotional breakdowns, but i still cant shake that unpleasant “high” and dull feeling. Thanks shawn! I hope you read this. Couldnt find any other way to contact you

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Sapna

From my experience, it is not an affliction, it is a state of mind; a space where you realize all that is occurring about you & others; without you being really really involved !
May be, the ‘depersonalization’ is something, I can come out and go in anytime I choose to .. but this would be just me : being neutral, non-judgmental, being yourself and watching yourself; possibly from a higher knowledge and self-perspective.

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sofia

Well , Actually I`ve lived that state of my mind . I felt like if I was watching my own life from outside it´s not a nice experience at all . I swear it !

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Shaun O Connor

Hi Sapna,
You’re quite correct that there is certainly a ‘depersonalization’ of sorts happening more and more in modern society. However, the Depersonalization Disorder I’m referring to is much more of an unwanted, unsolicited anxiety-based condition than a state of mind that can be accessed at will. Thank you for your comment!

Shaun

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donna

no it is not a good experience. I have had this experience in High school in 1974 and they ,the school psychologist said it is adolescence depression. Well, I get this way every year or so since. And it is 2017. After the election this is how I am feeling. Scared , not knowing what to do so I think my mind is protecting me from something very unusual happening that I have no no control over. and it is very upsetting and causing stress.

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Shaun O Connor

Hi Donna,
It’s very common for DP to be misdiagnosed completely or described a little more than a ‘general malaise’, even nowadays. So your diagnosis in 1974 is sadly, not surprising. I hope that dealing with the condition has become easier in the intervening time.

Shaun

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Hana

At least yours was triggered by intense panic attack which (in case therapy doesn’t work) antidepressants can treat. For me, I got depersonalization as a withdrawal symptom of antidepressants (I took for my moderate social anxiety). I also suffer from anhedonia (lack of pleasure) and I guess this and dp are interconnected. Do you have anhedonia as well? Unfortunately for me, ADs either don’t resolve these symptoms or make them worse. I’m damned for life.

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Shaun O Connor

Hi Hana,
Thanks for your comment!
In my experience of speaking to thousands of people who have had this condition, one thing remains consistent: It doesn’t matter *how* the condition came about, the recovery process is always the same.

Regarding your second point: Depersonalization is almost always comorbid with other symptoms like Anhedonia etc so I wouldn’t worry about that being a separate issue and I certainly wouldn’t presume that you are ‘damned for life’, as you put it.

Medication can help with certain aspects of DP but in my experience the thought process itself still needs to actively overwritten by the individual. Meds can certainly be helpful in terms of day-to-day mood, but they won’t change an embedded thought habit. Only the individual themselves can achieve that!

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Matthew

I got DP from eating hallucinogenic mushrooms when I was 15. I am now 19 and still have the disorder. During my time with the disorder I have learned a great deal about it and recently I have found that the reason it stayed so long. The reason is unacceptance to all the thoughts and feelings that DP brings(which makes sense, because the feelings and thoughts that come with it are really scary). It is like that scene in Harry Potter when Ron wouldnt relax into the roots and the roots got tighter and tighter. Lol. Therfore, I have stopped trying to fight off all of the thoughts and emotions and instead just allow them to be there without judgment. I read Shaun’s book which really sped up my recovery. At the beginning of the book he talks about how DP wouldn’t be an issue if you had known what it was during the onset. I think this is because one would understand that he is not going crazy and he wouldn’t try to resist the thoughts and feelings. He would probably just let it be as he got on with his life, and the DP would slip away on its own. Depersonalization is a hard struggle, but it is not permanent. To anyone who has Depersonalization, read Shaun’s book.

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Shaun O Connor

Hi Matthew —
Thanks for your comment and you’re absolutely correct about the importance of the reaction to DP. The feeling itself is actually a defence mechanism of the brain to deal with traumatic situations, and typically dissipates in minutes or even seconds. It’s only when it’s fearfully examined and interpreted as ‘going crazy’ that it turns into an ongoing condition, fuelled by anxiety. Recognizing the feeling accurately is an essential tool both for recovery and preventing relapse.

Shaun

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Brooklyn

Hi ive been suffereing from this dp for a few years now , from a bad trip off weed wasnt even technically my fault but my question is will i ever be able to recover an can i ?? .. Im not asking or seeking help to be judged i just really want to know & is it normal with having dp to feel full body numbness ??

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Karen Young

Brooklyn it’s completely understandable that you would want answers about this and you deserve them. Be guided by what the doctors are saying. Sometimes it might take a few tries of different doctors or professionals before you find one that is able to make sense of things for you.

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Augusta

The best explanation I have read. It feels like I’m stuck between two realities or dimensions at times. I’m not sure if the epidemic of depersonalization is due to the consciousness level of us as a whole is rising and people are becoming more aware of things and are having difficulties defining this. I sometimes have anxiety, I almost smoke weed and I have been on a “spiritual journey” for last few years all of that probably lead to this. Who’s to say its a bad thing, its only scary to me because like he says earlier you don’t truly know the truth

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Shaun O Connor

Thanks for your comment Augusta!
That’s a fascinating idea about our collective consciousness level rising and the DP epidemic being a result of that.

However, in my experience it’s a much less ethereal condition than that theory would suggest, at least in terms of how it responds to specific rules and behaviours. I would personally define it as something much more manageable, as is every condition on the anxiety spectrum.

Depersonalization can certainly seem like a very strange and unreal feeling — but with the right tools it can be controlled and eventually stopped.

Shaun

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Jeff

first had dp in feb of 1976…..was watching west world at the time…..was 22 yrs old……crazy,impactful stuff….Shaun has done some truly great work….much appreciated……

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Shaun O Connor

Hi Jeff —
I first developed chronic DP at around the same age, triggered by a variety of factors. And in fact, most people seem to get it in their early twenties, with rates dropping off as age increases.

I hope you are doing well and thank you for your comment!

Shaun

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Maxim

Hello shaun I meet my depersonalization in the army one day I start feel anxiety and panic attack then after a few weeks the panic stopped several months later i decade go to psychiatry he gives me hypricum then I started feel my brain like a smog not can even thought clearly but before I started take the pills only my frontal area was sealed what you can say about that .thanks allot ))

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Shaun O Connor

Hello Maxim,
Thanks for your comment and I’m sorry to hear you’ve been experiencing DP. The condition is typically brought on by stress and trauma so if you were having a difficult time in the army that may have been a contributing factor. I can’t advise directly about your experience with hypricum, but if you take a look at my website there’s an general article on medication that I think you’ll find useful!

Best,
Shaun

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kelechi

im nigerian and i have all d symptoms of dp i developed dp after much weed intake how can i get dis book …i hope to recovery and help others its really scary and

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Cait

When I was 16 I had a panic attack and from then on had DP and head pressure and burning. I’m 25 now and still have it. It lessened the Intensity of it like always thinking about it and asking myself questions about DP and I kind of made it a part of me. That’s how I learned to live with it. I recently had another bad panic attack and now the DP is back to being intense. Always thinking about it. I just got the DP manual and am starting the recovery. I have a question about the vitamins. What dosage should you take of b6, b12, and magnesium? Also have you Encountered other people who have none stop head pressure while having DP 24/7?

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Shaun O Connor

Hi Cait,
Thanks for your comment!
I would definitely recommend taking supplements, exercising etc — because the healthier your physical lifestyle is, the more beneficial and supportive that will be for your mental health. That will in turn allow you to quickly develop the positive thought habits that will stop anxiety / DP.

Best,
Shaun

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kelechi

hey karen ..thanks for the reply ..the thing is its like nobody here has heard of dp before and ive tried to explain to my fam about dp but it feels like they just dont get it..talked to my brother about my dp symptoms and he told me about a time he was broke in school,then i told my sister and she told me about her mentral pains.. its like everybody gives me the impression that they have been through worse meanwhile im not trying to compete…losing friends,losing weight,losing my sense of humour ,…even showed them shauns article about his dp but somehow they just dont get it..painful feeling i tell ya,and i sound weird telling someone i wanna get a book online,its about depersonalisation..A FEELING OF DETACHMENT FROM ONES SELF..nobody tryna help a weird problem outhere ..i start to think theyre happy i have dp…having issues trying to get the book..if theres any exceptional case please let it be mine .i cant even start to explain what ive been through..i know you get it ..@king_Ajaa on instagram

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Shaun O Connor

Hi Kelechi —
I totally understand, it can be very difficult to explain just how scary DP is to someone who has never heard of it before. But the good news is that you don’t need anyone else to understand it in order to recover. All you need to do is overwrite the negative thought habits that cause the anxiety and DP.
Thanks for your comment!

Shaun

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Vannety

Hi Shaun,

I want to thank you first for writing your book! It helped me a lot. I have to work with it consistently.
Is it normal that the philosophical thoughts remain so bad? Things like: do we have a soul? Maybe everything is fake and I only now discover that? Is there life after death? why are we people? such things can totally panic. have the condition since 2 years now, and would like to leave. am really worried that because I am so philosophically looking at life now, in the future I can never look normalbagayn at myself and the world around me. I hope to hear from you! Greetings Vannety from the Netherlands

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Shaun O Connor

Hi Vannety,
Thanks for your comment and I’m delighted to hear that you’ve found the book so useful. It’s true that the intrusive, existential thoughts can be one of the more disturbing symptoms of DP. The important thing to remember is that these thoughts, just like every other symptom, are driven 100% by anxiety. The thoughts can seem scary, but technically they have no more significance than any non-anxious thought.

But you don’t need to worry about dealing with them separately. When you deal with the anxiety the scary philosophical thoughts will disappear naturally and your normal habits of thinking will return. You can and will get back to normal!

Shaun

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Marie

Hi Shaun
I have your manual etc..thank you.
My most terrible symptoms are these..please help…When I look at anything it doesn’t loOK right but if I stare or focus on it for a bit it finally looks like it should but then goes back to not right and THEN I realize how DEEP I’m in this hole or have blocked out reality and me..please tell me….have you heard from anyone or experienced yourself this???
1st time experienced episode was 1989 after MONTHS of anxiety,heart pounding ,no sleep,job stress,family rejection. Hospitalized.
Got better,job,but I think I used symptom of not existing as a protection. Daughter got married in august 2017..my pet of 15 years had stroke and died 48hours after wedding. Next thing I knew I was in this hell.
That’s why I’made asking for your help.
Thank you..God bless

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Karen Young

Marie, I would really encourage you to find a therapist or counsellor who is able to provide you the support you need. There will be a way to manage your symptoms so they are less intrusive for you, but this will need a full understanding of what you are experiencing. The help is out there. If you aren’t sure where to start, a doctor will be able to point you in the right direction.

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Luciano

I got DP/DR on February 24, 1978. Today is February 13, 20017. That is 39 years. Shawn says in his book that DP/DR is not permanent, but in my case it may as well be.

I am not defined by it as I worked 30 years as a special education teacher. I’ve managed to get a Masters Degree in Education and three cleared teaching credentials. I have my own home, am retired now and travel extensively. I go days and sometimes weeks without thinking about it. I read another manual on DP/DR written by another gentleman, It’s my understanding that both of your manuals are similar in scope.

To be honest, I’ve had DP/DR for so many years that I don’t remember what my life was before February 24, 1978.

My episode started after smoking a lot of marijuana. I then made the mistake of smoking again two weeks after my initial panic attack, but I still wasn’t completely myself. I’ve been in this state, in various degrees, for most of my life.

The only thing that is an issue is that I’m emotionally blunted. I don’t know how to miss people or bond with people. It seems like as soon as I finish talking to a friend, one to one or even on the phone, a few minutes later it seems like I never had the conversation. I have to make it a point to contact friends or I will never do it. Part of it is lazyness I guess, but the other part is that I just don’t feel the need to. There is this sense of disconnect.

I have a girlfriend, but as you can imagine I drive her nuts with my detachment. Tomorrow is Valentines Day, but I don’t feel anything about it. I bought her some gifts and she is coming over. In the evening we are going out to dinner. There is this sense of just going through the motions. At funerals I have to be careful not to appear cold, so I try to look and act sad, but inside I don’t feel either. Again, it’s is disconnect.

I won’t even begin to tell you what I’ve tried over the years. I probably broke a record for money spent on ridding oneself of DP/DR. At this point guess I have just embraced it as my well intentioned friend who wants to protect me, even though I don’t need any protection. I am doing pretty good on my own.

To be honestly, I’m not sure what I expect from writing you. I guess I feel deep inside the need to connect and even though I don’t really feel anything, the intention is better than nothing. I’m always trying to be the Luciano who I think would act the way I do now, but without all the preparation and looking around for social cues on how to act.

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