I remember when I started experiencing depersonalization (DP) several years ago. Something felt off about myself and the world around me. I tried to brush it off at first. I thought maybe it was my depression trying to make a come back.
The intensity of the DP symptoms slowly started increasing and I started to worry more and more. Due to my ignorance, I tried to shoo away this feeling with drinking. For some strange reason, I thought smoking cigarettes might help. None of that made me feel better. In fact, looking back, I can say it probably aggravated the situation.
One worry led to another and everything culminated into a full-blown panic attack one morning on my way to work. I had never experienced anything like that before and it shook me to my core. I began to feel very unsafe.
After that incident, I felt like my depersonalization and derealization (DP/DR) became permanent. Back then, every day felt like a battle for my safety.
It took me a while to put my life back in order. I have detailed on this website how I managed to get through depersonalization and anxiety in the various articles I’ve written.
In this article, I want to talk about what the core issue with depersonalization is. Understanding this issue will make all the pieces of the depersonalization puzzle fit.
You see, depersonalization disorder attacks your sense of safety more than anything. This is also predominantly the reason why you can’t seem to shake this feeling off. It’s the mechanism by which the disorder sustains itself.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Nature is brutal. Every species on this planet is always on the lookout for threats to its survival. This is why you’ll see animals scanning the environment from time to time even when performing leisurely activities like grazing.
Us humans are not that different. Only in the recent few centuries have we extricated ourselves from constantly being vigilant. Due to the advent of civilization and technology, we are able to relax and not worry about our day to day survival. Most of us are fortunate enough not to worry about where our next meal is going to come from or whether we have a reliable shelter to sleep in.
We feel safe and secure most of the time. This frees a lot of our mental energy to perform other activities. We are free to enjoy TV shows, cook up a creative meal, solve problems, and partake in other activities that utilize our higher order thinking. There is less of a need for the lower, more primordial circuits of the brain to be constantly functioning. These lower order mechanisms of the brain are largely responsible for functions pertaining to survival such as detecting existential threats.
What trauma and depersonalization do is that they disturb this sense of safety that we possess. Instead of feeling safe and secure, we now feel unsafe and hypervigilant. That is, we are put on high alert and are always on the lookout for threats.
There is a small region in the brain called the amygdala (actually we have two). These are responsible for detecting any threat and activate the stress system to make us either fight the threat or run away from it.
Such a system helped us when we were living in caves as hunter-gatherers. During ancient times, we might face a threat from a wild animal or an enemy tribe at any moment. The people who were on high alert most of the time were the ones who survived. These are our ancestors and we’ve inherited their biological hardware (their genes).
When someone grows up in a loving home devoid of any physical or emotional abuse, their threat detection apparatus is mostly dormant. Such people feel secure and safe most of the time.
On the other hand, people who grow up in a violent household or people who are exposed to life-altering trauma later in their adult life become easily susceptible to threats, real or perceived. The dormant threat detecting apparatus in the brain becomes hypersensitive. They are easily scared or become extremely irritable. Their sense of safety and security is compromised.
When someone becomes depersonalized, the same scenario follows. Depersonalization and derealization make you feel like something bad might happen to you at any moment. Unbeknownst to yourself, you start to worry about your survival. Such worrying causes more stress. The body responds to this stress with more feelings of anxiety and depersonalization. Thus, depersonalization becomes self-sustaining.
So, what can we do about this?
In order to be free of depersonalization and derealization, we must break this stress-depersonalization feedback cycle. To do that, we must cultivate an underlying sense of safety.
Creating an Underlying Sense of Safety
Imagine signing up for skydiving. For most of us, it can be an intimidating experience. It sounds thrilling, but we won’t dive unless we are sure we will be safe in the end. That safety comes in the form of a parachute. Even then, there’s a chance that your chute won’t open so there’s always a reserve. Only when we are satisfied with these safety measures that most of us are able to let go and dive from the plane.
Similarly, with depersonalization and anxiety, we need to create an underlying sense of safety to recover. Without this, we won’t be able to let go, surrender, accept these feelings and symptoms, and heal.
So what does this look like in practice? Your underlying sense of safety can come from a combination of options available to you. It can also come from your knowledge about what depersonalization is and its prognosis. Here are some examples of where someone’s sense of safety can come from:
- Your deep understanding that depersonalization is not a harmful disorder. It may be scary and unpleasant but it won’t do permanent damage to you.
- You realize that through acceptance you can eventually recover from depersonalization disorder.
- You have support from friends and family who will look after you and care for you.
- You have faith in the healing power of the body and mind. The body and mind know how to get back into balance over time.
- You have faith in a higher power and this power will not ultimately forsake you.
- There’s an adequate amount of money in your bank account that you can afford to take some time off and heal. You won’t have to stress about where your next meal is going to come from if you take a break from your job due to DP/DR.
- The fact that thousands of other people go through this illness and come through healed afterward.
- You can think of DP as a transformational process. There may be pain and suffering when we go through it, but in the end, there is wisdom to be gained and we’re better off than before.
These are not the only options. There are many more that can be specific to your situation.
An Exercise That Helps
Here’s a short exercise that you can perform. Write down where your underlying sense of safety comes from. You can use the above examples if they resonate with you, but I also urge you to come up with some of your own. Spend 10-15 minutes on this exercise.
Next time, when you get taken over by scary thoughts, you can rely on this underlying sense of safety to carry you through. You can tell yourself no matter how grave the situation looks, you’ve always got a few options to hold on to. This is your foundation of safety that you can reliably stand on even as you get battered with waves of panic or weird DP/DR symptoms.
Found this article useful? Were you able to come up with your underlying sense of safety? Why not leave a comment below letting other readers know where this sense of safety comes from?