What is depersonalization? It is a mental condition that can cause the nurse
at a hospital suffering “burnout” to become emotionally detached, and cynical about the patients in her care, or it
can be the state of mind that causes a brother to murder his sister with a hammer in an explosive fit in their
home. Depersonalization is a serious condition, and the third most common form of anxiety disorder.
It has been said that the inspiration for Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s famous painting
The Scream came to him as a result of his depersonalization, and it has been suggested by a top-ranking US
military commander that it is depersonalization that enables a soldier to kill another human being. For many others
in everyday life, it is a disturbing condition that makes them feel like they are living in a dream or a movie.
Everything seems unreal, and hazy. They find it hard to talk, and connect with others, and maybe even lose the love
they feel for those closest to them. They lose a sense of who they are, and sometimes can’t remember having certain
conversations, or doing a specific action. They lose all sense of what they used to consider being
According to the Psychiatric Diagnostic & Statistic Manual, Depersonalization
Disorder (DPD), causes a feeling of ‘detachment or estrangement from one’s self,’ that a person may feel like an
automaton, or an outsider divorced from their body, as if they are watching their own body’s movements from across
the street, or viewing their mental processes as those belonging to someone else. Some even experience
de-realization too, a sense that the external world is strange or unreal.
Depersonalization affects those who suffer from severe anxiety or panic disorder, depression,
post traumatic stress disorder,
obsessive compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. It can also strike those who are afflicted by migraine, or
epilepsy, but also be experienced by others without any known mental health issues simply through fear, fatigue,
stress, emotional turmoil, or even meditation. And perhaps, not surprisingly, people who use recreational drugs
such as cannabis have described feeling a sense of depersonalization as a result of their inhalation.
The Depersonalisation Research Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry in London has become the
world’s top authority on DPD, and has many theories about the cause of the condition. One theory is that people
experiencing severe anxiety or traumatic events fall into a state of depersonalization as a way of becoming
detached from the situation, and thereby avoid having to cope with it. This on the face of it might seem like a
good coping mechanism – but it often leads to a more permanent condition, and can then become a “chronic” case of
Another possibility is that sections of the brain that are receptive to sensory information
isn’t integrating properly with the ‘temporal lobes’ that play the important role in processing the emotions we
feel. This has been demonstrated in studies involving people with suspected DPD, resulting in ‘significant
differences’ between those who suffer from it and those who don’t. In other tests, people with depersonalization
have been found to have a ‘low skin conductance response’ to unpleasant forms. This, says the Research Unit,
suggests something is blocking the senses dealing with emotional reckoning. Measuring arousal is an important
factor when gauging emotions.
Yet more studies have found that people with DPD have lost the ability to feel empathy for
others. This has been measured in a series of stress tests revealing differences in heart rates, and hormonal
Despite all the research, the Unit has stated that there is currently no “evidence-based”
treatment for depersonalization, though further studies have indicated that forms of psychotherapy such as
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) looks the most promising as a way to combat the condition, as indeed is the case
with other anxiety disorders. Although
medication, and prescribed drugs are sometimes used for people with general depression, doctors tend to veer away
from this course of action when diagnosing anxiety disorders because drugs are not a long term solution and have
been found to heightened the anxiety-related symptoms when people stop taking anti-depressants.
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