We explore the various causes and triggers of depersonalization and derealization in this article.
There are two kinds of people with depersonalization (DP): those who know how they became depersonalized and those who don’t have a clear idea of why.
Even someone who knows how they became depersonalized cannot know the exact cause. For example, if you became depersonalized after consuming marijuana and having a panic attack, you might be confused about whether it was the weed that caused the DP or if that was just a trigger and there were some underlying issues you might have had that the weed brought out.
Let’s delve in and see what could be the various causes and triggers that may invoke depersonalization and derealization. Knowing how your DP/DR came about might help you tackle it in the present and even be able to prevent it in the future.
1) DP/DR from a Panic Attack After Smoking Weed/Marijuana
Developing depersonalization from an adverse reaction to weed seems to be a common trigger for a lot of people, especially young adults.
I’d like to say that it’s probably not the weed itself that causes the depersonalization. If that were the case, then anyone smoking pot should experience DP. What’s more of a possibility is that the weed might have acted as a trigger for some underlying anxiety or worries to bubble up.
When people try to fight or repress whatever emotions that might come up after smoking or consuming marijuana, then it’s going to create a sense of panic. This is because you can’t really control the effects of weed once you consume it. These emotions and feelings are going to bubble up whether you like it or not.
The best approach in such cases is to just surrender to the experience and have a friend or a family member be there for support until the effects have dissipated. But many young people who consume weed are not aware of how to handle a distressing drug experience. Parents and communities need to be properly aware of how to navigate adverse reactions after smoking or consuming pot.
2) From an Extended Period of Stress & Anxiety
Stress plays a crucial role in the development of anxiety and depersonalization. For those that are not familiar with this connection, stress brings about a change in the levels of two hormones in your bloodstream: adrenaline and cortisol.
The alteration in levels of these two hormones can result in us feeling anxious, dreadful, and sometimes even overwhelmed. Our bodies and minds might erect a barrier to prevent us from breaking down. This barrier is what is experienced as depersonalization.
When we get depersonalized, we are cut off from emotions that can overwhelm us. But on the other hand, the effect of depersonalization itself can be scary and unpleasant. Hence, once you become depersonalized, the fear of depersonalization itself creates more stress and sustains the DP.
3) Moving to a New City or Country
Any change in the external environment can trigger our built-in stress response. Depersonalization is part of that stress response that our bodies and minds employ to be able to function in this world.
When we move to a new city or country, this can present us with a big challenge. We may have to adapt to a new culture or local customs, learn a new language, try to find friends, and form new relationships.
All of this can be exciting, but also taxing to a person.
Sometimes, we may not even be aware of how such a change is affecting us. We can be unconscious of our distress until it starts showing up as anxiety and various other symptoms. Such unconscious distress can also show up in our dreams. For example, we may long to go back home in our dreams or wake up from frightening nightmares. It’s not uncommon for such drastic change to trigger depersonalization and derealization.
4) Trauma in Childhood or Formative Years
Psychological trauma is a kind of damage that happens to one’s mind and sense of self. This kind of damage is especially common in childhood when we are the most vulnerable, but it is also possible to develop trauma in adulthood from a severely distressing event.
Common causes for developing trauma in childhood are physical and sexual abuse. When our caregivers are emotionally callous with us, then it’s possible to develop trauma from that as well.
The body and mind dissociate so that a person can function in such high-stress environments. Depersonalization and derealization may happen as a way of preventing such a breakdown. We may feel cut off from our negative emotions, so we don’t get overwhelmed. But as a result, we get cut off from positive emotions, like love and happiness, as well. We may become numb and the world might feel unreal. We lose our sense of self and may feel like a lost soul wandering the planet.
5) Genetic or Biological Causes
At the moment, it is not clear whether certain people are genetically predisposed to developing depersonalization in life. So, without any concrete evidence, we can only speculate.
It may be possible that there exists a gene (or lack of one) that can bring about effects of depersonalization as a person develops. Also, it could be that the effect of one’s environment can trigger the expression of a certain gene to produce the effects of depersonalization. Had this person never been in such an environment, the gene would not have been able to express itself at all.
I have to remind you that all of this is just hypotheses and the jury is still out regarding genetic or biological causes for depersonalization.
6) Extreme Dieting or Fasting Procedures That Can Affect One’s Mental Health
Anything done on an extreme scale can put our internal system under a lot of duress. Practices such as fasting or trying a radical new diet can create stress that the body and mind may not be able to cope with.
This is especially true when the body relies on nourishment to combat stress. When that nourishment is withheld, then the body may not be able to put up its normal defense against stress.
7) Overworking and Exhaustion
If you are a chronic workaholic, then your stress levels may have been steadily going up without you even realizing it. We all know of the case where a frog is placed in a bowl of water that’s being heated. The frog does not even realize that the water is getting hotter by the moment until it’s too late.
The body needs rest and rejuvenation to function properly. This includes taking occasional breaks from work and having healthy routines to decompress.
It may be fine to load up on extra work for about a week or more. We all are totally capable of handling that kind of short-lived stress. But it becomes a problem when working to the point of exhaustion is the norm every day.
8) Not Getting Enough Sleep
Something that goes with overworking and exhaustion is lack of enough sleep. According to the latest research, we require about 7.5 – 8 hours of sleep. Some people may be able to get away with a few minutes less than that.
Chronically depriving yourself of much-needed rest can alter the levels of adrenaline and cortisol in your system. This results in you feeling exhausted and tired all the time, which is an indication that the body is requiring sleep and rest.
Sleep deprivation has become an epidemic in our society these days, especially with the invention of smartphones and endless entertainment that is readily available. It’s not uncommon to find people glued to watching videos or binging on entire seasons of TV shows until the wee hours of the morning.
It’s best to sync up your sleep according to the rhythms of the day and night. Try going to sleep early in the night and wake up with the rising sun.
9) Encounters with Death, Such as a Close Call, Accident, or Death of a Loved One
We do not really like to talk or think about our impending death. But ours is the only species that is keenly aware of the limited time we have on this planet. Such deep fears about death are usually relegated to our unconscious, but they can sometimes surface if one has recently lost a close friend or relative, or has a close call or brush with death.
The mind becomes so preoccupied with thinking about death that it then starts to fear for its survival. In survival mode, we start to worry about all the things that could go wrong at any given moment. We may keep checking our heartbeat and our breathing. We get caught up in a lot of scary fear thoughts.
We are not used to this kind of obsessive focus on ourselves. When we are healthy, our focus shifts between our self and the outside world. But in survival mode, we become mired in excessive negative rumination about ourselves.
It’s no wonder we can feel detached from everything when this happens.
10) Spiritual Emergencies or Spontaneous DP/DR
A spiritual emergency, also called a spiritual crisis, is a phenomenon where a person experiences a breakdown in their identity and meaning-making mechanism because of a spiritual experience.
The human experience is vast and not completely understood. We do not really know why we are here or where it all came from. We also don’t really know if human experience is dictated only by what we can see and measure or whether there may be forces beyond the known universe that may play a part in our development.
When someone experiences a spiritual crisis, they may feel cut off from the rest of the world. This could manifest as a form of DP/DR, where people experience life as if there’s a thin veil between themselves and the rest of the world. They may start to lose interest in mundane activities, like going to work or engaging in water cooler conversations (small-talk).
Spiritual emergencies can be especially distressing to people who have never had any interest in spirituality or philosophy. Suddenly, they may find themselves thinking about the nature of reality, God, time, space, death, the concept of evil, and existence itself. This may start to interfere with their everyday life.
One may enter into what is known in theological circles as the “dark night of the soul.” This experience can bring about profound change to one’s thoughts and personality.
Usually, a spiritual crisis resolves itself over time as the person grows into their newly emerging self. But they can benefit from consulting a trained psychotherapist or working with a legitimate guru who may be able to help them by providing support and guidance during this time of their life.
See also Kundalini Syndrome.
11) Experience with Powerful Psychedelics, Such as LSD, Ketamine, Mdma, Magic Mushrooms
Psychedelics also have the power to trigger spiritual emergencies. Such chemicals are powerful and proper care and caution must be taken before indulging in them. If you experience DP/DR after consuming such compounds, it’s best to work with a counselor or find an integration circle or group to achieve balance and grounding that you will need.
12) Long Hours of Meditation
Meditation is a practice of intense concentration and stillness. It teaches us to go inward. While there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests the benefits of meditation for laypeople, these practices also have the potential to trigger a spiritual crisis and accompanying depersonalization and derealization, especially if the practice is long and consistent.
People who come out of a week-long meditation retreat have reported feeling depersonalized and derealized.
I hope this article provides you with an idea of the various triggers and causes for depersonalization and derealization disorder. I’ve tried to accommodate the most common causes and triggers that I’ve come across, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
If you are experiencing DP/DR currently, then rest assured that your body is just having a normal reaction to stress or trauma. The cure starts with accepting these feelings and sensations.
Recovery from DP/DR is not a complicated process. In fact, as outlined in my DP/DR recovery course, anyone can recover from DP/DR. It just requires some effort and willingness to experience temporary discomfort to achieve permanent recovery.
Please leave a comment below letting me know about the underlying cause or trigger of your depersonalization or derealization, whether it’s listed here or not. I’m curious to know about it. You may also be helping someone else out who is reading this article by adding your input.
All images from Pixabay and Unsplash.