Depersonalization and Derealization disorder is a stress response. People who develop DP and DR have been in a state of long-term stress and or/anxiety, often without being aware of the extent to which this is the case.
Depersonalization/derealization are classed as dissociative disorders, that is, disorders in which the individual enters into a pervasive state of disconnection from self and environment in order to cope with stressors.
This disconnection occurs subconsciously, so is always confusing and frightening to the sufferer, as there appears to be no cause for the sudden onset of DP/DR symptoms.
Disconnection from the self is apparent in the feeling that one is observing oneself doing things and interacting with people, or is on 'autopilot' and is not really in full control.
This disconnection often results in the sufferer complaining that they no longer have emotions and that their skin feels numb, as well as other strange and frightening sensory distortions.
Disconnection from the environment is apparent in the feeling that one is living in a 'dream' and that life does not feel real.
Disordered Breathing Pattern/Hyperventilation
Due to being in a state of long-term stress, the sufferer develops poor breathing patterns (being in a state of constant hyperventilation). This poor breathing affects the brain and in turn the senses, leading to the strange sensory experiences related to DP & DR.
Sufferers often feel that their breathing became panicked or shallow following the onset of DP & DR symptoms, as a response to the fear and confusion of the disorder, but in fact this poor breathing has been in place for a long time prior and is one of the causes of DP & DR. Poor breathing may become more severe or apparent following the development of DP & DR, but it was already in place for some time prior to developing DP & DR.
Poor breathing is not only caused by anxiety and being in a state of fight or flight, but it fuels the anxious state as it affects our posture and brainwaves, resulting in a vicious cycle - see my blog post The Importance of your Breathing Pattern in Mental Health for a better understanding of this.
High levels of Cortisol running through the body due to external stressors also contribute to this disorder. Cortisol is present when we enter fight or flight, or whenever we perceive a threat. When in this state long-term, cortisol can be quite damaging.
Often people with DP and DR have become so used to feeling under stress that they aren't even aware that they are in such a state or that anything is wrong. They are used to ignoring how they feel and suppressing it so as to survive in the environment that is causing them this stress.
If the environment is perceived as particularly stressful or even life-threatening, this can lead to dissociation. By disconnecting from one's body and environment, the threats and stressors are not felt as severely and the individual is better able to cope with the 'knives' being thrown.
Dissociation (which is what depersonalization & derealization is) occurs as a defence mechanism and as a way of escaping from a particular environment or situation to protect the self.
It happens because the individual chronically ignores their emotions and natural stress response, so is incapable of protecting themselves and instead continues to put themselves in harmful situations.
As a result, the body and mind's only defence and way to escape is to detach completely from the vessel (the body) that is putting the self in these situations. This happens subconsciously and involuntarily, however, and as a result, is very frightening.
A Spiritual Perspective on Depersonalization & Derealization
I only use the term 'spiritual' here because whenever we delve deeper into the emotional causes behind health conditions (whether physical or mental) it seems to slip into the category of spirituality, as the emotional component of illness is still often overlooked in mainstream medicine.
As a result, whenever the emotions are discussed in relation to illness, it is seen as somewhat 'alternative'. So, when I say a 'spiritual perspective', all I really mean is what are the emotional causes and traumas beneath depersonalization and derealization.
My opinion is that all illnesses are physical manifestations of aspects of our emotional bodies that are misaligned. When we have a trauma that needs to be healed or an emotion that is being ignored or bulldozed, this will manifest physically in illness as a physical mirror of this misalignment but also to give us the opportunity to heal this aspect of ourselves and to realign.
With depersonalization and derealization, first and foremost the sufferer disconnects from their body and their environment and enters a feeling of being in a dream and as though things are not real. They feel as though they aren't really in their body, they have numbness of the skin and their senses feel muted, dimmed.
Their emotions are dumbed down and they feel as though there is an invisible wall or film between them and the outer world. The body does this to protect the person from the threats of the environment - it is safer to be in a 'dream' than to be in reality (derealization).
If the person can't physically escape from the threatening environment, they instead escape from themselves (depersonalization) so they no longer have to 'feel' the perceived threats. They can no longer feel their emotions because when they do it is too painful and they are incapable of following what their emotions are telling them. This is how depersonalization/derealization is a subconscious effort to protect the individual.
In terms of mirroring, the extreme feelings of disconnection from self and dreaminess are simply mirroring the fact that the individual is disconnected from themselves. The individual has developed such a severe pattern of self-abandonment and suppression of emotion that they are incapable of protecting themselves. They override their emotional responses to things and continue to put themselves in harmful situations or environments.
They have developed a pattern of forcing themselves to fit into their environment and social circle to survive, and unfortunately, this is at the expense of themselves. They are totally disconnected from themselves and often are living a life that they think they enjoy, around people who they think they connect to, doing things they think they are interested in, when in fact they have simply overridden their true thoughts, feelings and opinions and adopted those of the people and places around them so they will not be excluded or ostracized.
These individuals are often around people or in environments where the consequences for not adhering to the norms or for 'making a fuss' are so severe that it is safer to completely detach from the self and anything that might conflict with the environment, and instead become a sort of 'emotional chameleon', matching their thoughts and feelings with those around them.
These people often feel as though they don't have any interests or passions in life and don't really know what direction they want to go in, because everything they do in life is reactive to the environment, not driven from the self.
When this pattern is long-term and unrelenting, depersonalization and derealization then emerge as both a protective response and also to alert the person to the fact that they are way out of alignment and need to reconnect with their true selves. The symptoms of DP & DR are so overwhelming and obvious that the individual is absolutely incapable of ignoring them.
Depersonalization and derealization force the individual to finally pay attention to how they feel, to acknowledge the physical and emotional responses they have to their environment and the people in it, and to finally allow every action they take be dictated by how they feel, not by what they should be doing.
The overwhelming need to isolate oneself from people and to 'hide away' is because the individual has finally become acutely aware of how they truly feel in their environment and social circle.
They have become so acutely aware of the harshness and threats of their environment they have been ignoring and that have caused them to develop DP and DR that they can no longer be in such an environment. It is too painful, overwhelming and frightening, so they instead isolate themselves and prefer to be alone, because at least that is safer the subjecting themselves to the threats of the outer world.
DP and DR is the body's way of making it impossible for them to suppress their feelings or mould themselves to their environment anymore, finally forcing them to isolate themselves and seek out an environment that will be safer, softer, and allow them time for extreme introspection in order to 'find' themselves again - to reconnect.
The body and the subconscious know that the individual cannot survive in a state of constant stress and disconnection from self (even though the person isn't usually aware of it), so by manifesting the symptoms of DP and DR, the subconscious gives rise to the opportunity for the individual to acknowledge their emotions and reconnect to the self.
As frightening and painful as this may be, DP and DR are actually a protective, survival response. If the individual allows the symptoms of DP and DR to guide them in a different direction, to allow the time of isolation to take place, the symptoms will dissipate much sooner and the person will find a connection with themselves that they have never known before and develop a sense of trust in themselves.
Depersonalization and Derealization is a spiritual awakening in the sense that it gives rise to a whole new connection to the self and perspective of the self. The individual is finally forced to feel themselves and become aware of how their environment makes them feel. The individual feels as though they have entered into a dream or a different life, that the world looks and feels different. Although it is extremely unpleasant and frightening, it is just that the individual is finally seeing aspects of their environment and themselves that they have ignored and been numb to for so long.
Depersonalization and derealization force the individual to radically change their life and to develop an entirely different perspective on life, people and the world, as the loneliness of this disorder leads them to extreme introspection and philosophising. Once the shock and fear of the symptoms dissipate, and the individual learns to understand them and listen to them, living with depersonalization and derealization becomes less like a nightmare and more like a unique perspective of humanity and the world.
These people usually lose interest in the finer details of life and social customs and can view things objectively and see the greater meaning behind things that happen in life. They don't get caught up in the little things. Depersonalization and derealization can be a gift if the individual can learn to work with it, and it is something that they have 'chosen', in a spiritual sense, to develop a higher perspective. Being alone in one's thoughts, alone in one's experience, becoming extremely introspective and observant can lead to great insight. Being a loner doesn't necessarily equate to loneliness.
If you want to get really 'hippy dippy', some people believe that depersonalization and derealization is a type of spiritual enlightenment wherein the individual is made aware of how thin the veil is between physical reality (life) and what we would call the spirit world (simply where our consciousness exists with no physical body - Source).
The sense of things being dreamlike or unreal, and feeling outside of one's body is just that the individual has become less attached to the physical world. They have become more aware that life isn't really 'real' in a sense, it is just a projection of our consciousness from Source. If the person can master this, manifestation should become easier and more fluid as things should feel less solid or 'stuck' in the physical - the reality should feel more malleable because it feels less real.
Overall, like any other illness, depersonalization and derealization is a physical manifestation of the misalignment of one's emotions and thoughts. The sufferer has become so detached from themselves and is in such a state of constant stress and anxiety, that the body numbs the senses to both protect from the threats, and in turn the symptoms and displeasure that come from suddenly becoming aware of how greatly detached they are, forces the individual to make the necessary changes in their life.
Depersonalization and derealization render the person incapable of bulldozing themselves or abandoning themselves anymore, as the symptoms are so overwhelming and obvious, and are simply too painful to override.
The individual's decisions and actions become dictated by the symptoms of DP and DR, which is just the body's way of getting the person to finally acknowledge and follow their emotions, their internal guidance system.
When the individual allows this to happen, and makes the necessary changes to their environment and thought patterns when they finally reconnect to themselves and validate how they feel, DP and DR will become less of a burden, and more of a guidance system, leading the person back on track when they start to fall back in to the same patterns of self-abandonment.
DP and DR is not a curse, it is something that will help you to reconnect with yourself and redirect your life down a path that is actually what you want and is of your choosing, not a path that you have conformed to in order to survive in your environment.
Being disconnected from the self and having no understanding or awareness of how you are feeling is one of the most dangerous states to be in. This makes a person incapable of making decisions that are in their best interest, and will only lead to a life that causes more stress and anxiety, and is ultimately a life that is not yours - it is the product of what your environment, family or social group expect.
Being in touch with your emotions, although frightening and extremely painful at first, is a gift long term. Allow this process to take place. Know that DP and DR is a normal response to the state that you have been in. You aren't going mad and you aren't the only person to experience this.
Do what your emotions and your body are telling you to do - withdraw for as long as you need to, be soft to yourself. When you start making this your priority, the symptoms of DP and DR will become less severe. See my blog post titled How to Cure Depersonalization and Derealization for further advice on how you can get back into your body and reconnect to yourself to heal from depersonalization and derealization.