Depersonalization and Derealization [Infographic]

Ever get the feeling you are watching yourself as if in a movie? Or, as if you are living in a dream?

Depersonalization-derealization occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body or that you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both. Many people have a passing experience of depersonalization or derealization at some point. But when feelings of depersonalization keep occurring or never completely go away, it is classified in the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as a psychological disorder.

Click on image to view enlarged versions
Click on image to view enlarged versions

Depersonalization-derealization is the third most common psychological symptom, after feelings of anxiety and feelings of depression. Depersonalization is a symptom of anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder. It can also accompany sleep deprivation (often occurring when suffering from jet lag), migraine, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder, stress, and anxiety1. Persons who are at greatest risk of chronic depersonalization-derealization are those who experience one or more of the following risk factors: tendency to deny difficult situations, have trauma or abuse, are a teen or early adult, have depression or anxiety, use hallucinogens or smoke pot.

Living The Dream

My Hindu-Yoga meditation teacher exhorted his students to realize this world and everything in it is a dream of Maya. “For how long will you pass through these changes called life and death? Until you realize fully the dream nature of creation, and awaken in God from its nightmares” pleaded Yogananda to his students2. Buddhist teachers also train students to see this world as an illusion of Maya. “The real sky is (knowing) that samsara and nirvana are merely an illusory display”, says Mipham Rinpoche in Quintessential Instructions of Mind3. The metaphor of awakening from a dream of ignorance is poetic and powerful imagery. But, prolonged states of depersonalization, in rare cases, may be psychologically debilitating.

Sundays we’d sit in silent meditation for six hours in the Monks’ Chapel. My meditation practices led to many insights into the nature of my mind, feelings, and body. (Not always wonderful). During and after meditation, I often felt as if I was detached from my body or I was living in a dream. My dream-like transcendent experiences were accompanied often by peace, ecstasy, or love. When my spiritual “highs” dissipated — whether it took minutes, hours, or days to wear off after my meditation — coming down from “intoxicating” psychological states was mildly depressing.

See my accompanying post Enlightenment’s Evil Twin

Questions for readers: How about you? Ever “live” as if in a dream or movie? How did you feel?

Notes

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depersonalization
  2. Paramahansa Yogananda, The Divine Romance, ch 2 ‘A New Look at the Origin of Cosmic Creation’, Collected Talks and Essays (Book 2), Self-Realization Fellowship 1986
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_(illusion), Mipham Rinpoche, Quintessential Instructions of Mind, p. 117 Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light. Edited and introduced by Michael Katz, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, NY, pp. 117

Creator of Skeptic Meditations
14 comments
  1. Very interesting. What is special in one culture is considered a disorder in another. Thanks for posting.

  2. “Loss of interest in things you normally enjoy” is one of the many things that can happen in depression — and indeed the DSM-V lists it as one possible symptom in their check list. I just got over a very bad cold, and lost interest in writing, exercise and more. Well, hell, that makes sense. Was I depressed?

    I have experienced transient depersonalization in meditation and in severe exertion (mountain climbing), did I worry about it as if I had dropped into a DSM-V category or was verging on one. Absolutely not!

    But if depersonalization was recurrent, without apparent cause, then it is time to talk to others. Hell, it is always time to talk with others! 🙂

  3. @yogibattle: Excellent point about cultures versus “disorders”.

    South Asian culture: I’ve not been to India but have many friends from there. I understand traditional Indian culture has deep respect for wandering sadhus (ascetics) and monks (renunciants). To South Asian Indians, sadhus and renunciant-monks seem to represent “bliss” or are spiritual reminders of the illusory nature of this world, Maya.

    I’ve traveled in Thailand and Burma. The Buddhist populace seems to revere monks and I often saw robed monks walking around seemingly respected by most Asians. In fact, most Thai boys live in a monastery, as robed Buddhist monks, for at least a few years during their youth.

    American monks: Americans don’t seem to understand monks or ascetics at all. Americans see monastics as bizarre or strange outcasts of society. Nor are monastics particularly respected outside their own specific religious congregations (unlike Asia where monastics of all denominations are generally revered or at least understood as part of society).

    I appreciate your visits and comments.

  4. @Sabio: Agree. What matters is to what degree of intensity and duration are the symptoms of psychological “disorders”. Depression symptoms are normal, just like colds. But they can develop or linger into something more serious if they continue.

    I can’t wait to read your mountain-climbing posts!

    Appreciate your comments and insights.

  5. “Respect” is a commodity. I am in a profession (Medicine) where people resent the lack of respect they get and in private conversation belittle patients for not showing respect. “I studied for 12 years, I deserve more respect”.

    Ministers, Pastors, Monastics all use to get far more respect in America — I am so glad that has largely faded. Sanctimonious demand for respect, be it in Medicine or Religion is a farce. I respect my barber, my computer repair guy, the woman that butchers our chickens, construction folks and the electricians who does our wiring. Heck, even the waiters and others.

    Respect is a big topic, I know.
    In Japan it is played fully — but its dark side shines there too.
    If we understand it as a commodity, not as a right, we can better understand how it tricks us and how it can serve us.

  6. I had something like this when I was a teenager. The world seemed unreal as if people were like puppets walking around, and everything was like a dream. Not sure how it was caused – probably pot smoking and lack of sleep combined. I wouldn’t call it depersonalisation though because I never felt like I lost a sense of personhood. Then again, I suppose my “mental illness” defies my own logic in terms of the crazy things I have experienced in the meantime. Very VERY strange coincidences of somewhat international things, chiefly through music. It would be difficult to explain.

    I am convinced that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain and has much less to do with the kind of thoughts people think, even though the thoughts evidently circle around in the mind and gain weight, so to speak.

  7. @Sabio: Agree. Respect comes out of usefulness– if that’s what you are meaning about respect being a commodity. I’m glad to get your feedback and know you spent extended years in Asia and Japan. Good to get your multi-cultural perspectives.

  8. Yes, David, I too had similar experiences with pot as a teen. I had some bad experiences and avoid the stuff.

    Psychological classifications, like depersonalization and depression, have broad and narrow applications depending on how you interpret them. We all have moments, sometimes even days or weeks of depression after a significant loss where we feel depressed. But that doesn’t mean we are chronically depressed. It’s when debilitating mental states keep occurring or don’t go away that they become a “disorder” in our life. Same with depersonalization. We could feel like we are living in a movie for minutes, hours, or maybe days at a time. Not a problem, unless it becomes debilitating and we can’t function properly.

    Always a good idea to consult with a medical and psychological professional for our periodic checkups!

  9. I’d be a little suspicious of this sort of psychological diagnosis, since the Western psychiatrist’s ideal is materialistic happiness, which isn’t quite possible for existentially authentic, introverted artists and the like. Also, when it comes to the conflict between a corrupt or declining society and an enlightened individual, psychiatrists side with the former, since they’re scientistic and can only borrow their values/norms from social conventions, thus fallaciously appealing to popularity.

  10. @Benjamin Cain: Your point about the limitations of “science” and psychiatry is a good one. I agree that psychologists define “abnormal” from normal. All humans compare other humans against a familiar norm. And, in the process some people are misunderstood and labeled “abnormal” only because they are highly intelligent, creative, or genius– and, don’t fit societies norm.

    My post and sources stated that it is rare for persons who meditate to get clinical depersonalization and derealization. Like depression and anxiety, humans all seem to experience momentary or temporary depersonalization or derealization. When depression or depersonalization are extensive and debilitating that’s when problems arise– for the individual and their families. Inner psychological states are usually diagnosed through numerous therapeutic sessions with a psychologist.

    You say or imply that doctors and therapists may borrow psychological diagnoses for disorders from society. But so what? All persons and systems emerging from a society are impacted and influenced by that society and its norms. The introverted artists and “enlightened” are no less influenced by their societies.

    Your argument that society is corrupt or declining seems to be missing your premise, you didn’t share your underlying assumptions with us. So, I don’t think your argument is valid as you stated it. I don’t think society is fundamentally corrupt or in-decline. Improvements are needed, yes.

    Bottom line: I recommend consulting with doctors and psychiatrists for health reasons–as imperfect and imprecise as our current medical and psychiatric “therapies” are and always will be.

    If I misinterpreted you, let me know. Thanks for your comments.

  11. Depersonalization and derealization, feeling like you’re disconnected or watching your thoughts, sounds like the “witness perspective” written about in meditation literature.

    I’m curious what is the difference between the “witness perspective” written about in meditation literature and watching your thoughts float through your awareness because of depersonalization or derealization?

    To me they sound the same.

    This is a great website.

    Thank you for this info!

  12. @Jeff: I’m not familiar with the term “witness perspective” in meditation literature. I googled and found a few references from questionable online sources.

    What specific meditation literature are you referring to about “witness perspective”? What teachers or schools use that term? After we define it further, I may be able to examine the differences with you. Keep in mind psychological states (like depersonalization) are experienced subjectively and get diagnosed by a medical or psychiatric professional, which I’m not.

    Thanks for stopping by and engaging in the conversation.

  13. Scott,

    Thanks for the quick response and for posting this info online. It’s difficult to find experienced meditators discussing these things from a skeptical point of view.

    In an interview Sam Harris said:

    “There’s a moment before the thought has arisen and then there’s some expression of thought that arises in consciousness and you do not witness it arise. It’s the difference between watching a movie and being totally lost in the movie forgetting you’re sitting in a room with a bunch of people looking at light on a wall. It’s possible to see thoughts essentially like seeing light on a wall.”

    He doesn’t say it explicitly but to me it sounds like he’s talking about having a detached view of your thoughts. Or watching your thoughts as if they are separate from you.

    I have seen depersonalization scales, intended to look for depersonalization, mention watching your experience as if you’re watching a movie. And also mention having a detached view of your sense of self. To me this sounds very similar to the experience Sam Harris spoke about during his interview.

    In Sam Harris’s most recent book he talks a lot about cutting through the illusion of having a “self” or an ego, and identifying with your consciousness instead of the things within your consciousness like thoughts:

    “When you are able to rest naturally, merely witnessing the totality of experience, and thoughts are left to arise and vanish as they will, you can recognize that consciousness is intrinsically undivided. In the moment of such an insight, you will be completely relieved of the feeling that you call “I”.”

    I really think the experience of having a detached view of your self, or identifying with your consciousness instead of the things within your consciousness would be considered depersonalization by western psychology/psychiatry standards.

    I think the difference is how much value, if any, the person assigns to the experience. To some the detachment can be viewed as advanced meditative state or a better way of being. To others it could be viewed as scary, an illness, and something that needs to be overcome.

    Would you agree?

    I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

    Thanks!

    Jeff

  14. Jeff G: I have read and posted about Sam Harris’s new book Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion. You didn’t cite page numbers in your comments, nor the source for your other Harris quote.

    First, I recommend you learn more about what medical doctors and psychiatrists say about depersonalization/derealization. Reference the Sources noted at the bottom of the infographic on Depersonalization and Derealization [Infographic].

    My opinion, since you asked, is that there is indeed value for a sitting meditator, philosopher, or average joe to observe or watch their thoughts, feelings, and sensations. However, everything in moderation. It’s quite rare for persons to stay “stuck” watching the “movie” of their life or thoughts. The conditions for depersonalization may already be present prior to meditation practice. When I’ve practiced sitting meditation for 3, 6, or 8 hours at time, I often walked around afterward feeling that my life was surreal. My surreal “watching” faded always within minutes or a few hours.

    Subjective experiences are personal and individual to each person. Humans give value to meditation, personal experiences, money (not to mention sex, eating, or reading–to each his/her own perception of beauty and pleasure). People who have difficulty or problems functioning should seek professional medical help.

    If you discover anything new related to meditation or mindfulness along this topic, please let me know.

    Cheers

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