Depersonalization Disorder: Feeling Unreal and Disconnected

A peek into the life of someone with Depersonalization Disorder

woman looking at distorted image in mirror
Adri Berger/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

If you ever feel like you are from another planet or are unfamiliar even to yourself, you may be experiencing psychiatric symptoms of depersonalization.

In Dr. Daphne Simeon and Jeffrey Abugel's book, Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self, examples are offered showing how people who experience depersonalization feel. Cheryl, for example, notes that she feels like she is from Mars, and states,

"Being human seems strange, bodily functions seem bizarre...My thoughts seem separate from my body. At times, the most common, familiar objects can seem foreign, as if I'm looking at them for the first time. An American flag, for instance. It's instantly recognizable, and immediately means something to everyone. But if I look at it for more than a moment, I just see colors and shapes on a piece of cloth. It's as if I've forgotten ever seeing the flag before, even though I'm still aware of what my 'normal' reaction should be," (page 7).

Common but poorly understood

Many people have experienced transient depersonalization, when a sense of detachment or feeling unreal sets in. This is a natural response to being under stress, experiencing trauma, or just being in a new or unfamiliar place. For some, depersonalization can become more chronic and pervasive, and part of every day life.

Simeon and Abugel note in their book that depersonalization has been noted as the third most prevalent psychiatric symptom, following depression and anxiety.

Even so, perhaps due to stigma or lack of understanding, it is not spoken about nearly as much in popular culture or even within the psychiatric community.

What are some symptoms of depersonalization?

Many people who experience depersonalization discuss their lives as if they were living in a dream. There can be a sense of detachment from day to day experience, almost as if one were a robot.

Many report worrying that they are actually "going crazy." Other symptoms include:

  • A sense of emotional or physical numbness to the world around you.
  • A distorted sense of your physical self, as if your arms, legs or body were shrunken or enlarged or distorted in some way.
  • Feeling that your memories are emotionless, and perhaps questioning if they are even real.
  • Feeling detached or outside of yourself, as if you were an outside observer.

To meet the criteria for a diagnosis of Depersonalization Disorder, the symptoms cannot be explained by substance use.

What causes depersonalization?

One clear cut cause of depersonalization has yet to be found. Symptoms of depersonalization are likely a result of an imbalance of brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. Such an imbalance of neurotransmitters cause the brain to be especially vulnerable to stress.  People with Depersonalization Disorder are often found to have histories that include trauma of some kind, whether that includes childhood abuse, a severe accident, or another type of traumatic experience.

What kinds of treatment exists for depersonalization?

The most common treatment for depersonalization is psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy. There are no psychotropic medications that exist specifically to treat depersonalization, but sometimes antidepressants such as Prozac or anti-anxiety medications such as Klonopin are prescribed to help assuage the depression and anxiety that can be present with depersonalization.

If you are experiencing symptoms of depersonalization that are disturbing to you, it makes sense to get some help. Choose the right therapist for you and get some support. 


Simeon, D. & Abugel, J. (2006). Feeling unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and loss of the self. New York: Oxford University Press.

Continue Reading