When I was going through severe depersonalization, my mind would not rest. It was filled with so many scary and intrusive thoughts. It felt overwhelming.
I remember how I thought I was definitely on the verge of insanity. If not that, then I imagined vanishing into nothingness or completely losing my understanding of reality. Such thoughts are hard to put into words here, but their effects were real. I felt unsafe and was afraid for my well-being at all times.
These intrusive and scary thoughts would bring a lot of anxiety, fear, and panic into me.
Anxiety, fear, and panic are on the same spectrum. Anxiety is general unease, fear can be more immediate and intense than anxiety, whereas panic is at the extreme end of the spectrum. They are all reactions to the thoughts and feelings you experience.
When you imagine that something bad might happen to you, you feel anxious. When you think there is danger lurking, you feel fear. When you feel certain of that danger, your fear becomes panic.
Sensitivity to Fear
Our brains are extremely sensitive to fear. This is what helped us survive in the dangerous wild when we were cave dwellers and hunter-gatherers. Even after conquering nature and building civilizations, we are in many ways similar to our troglodyte ancestors. We run on the same hardware (our genetic makeup hasn’t changed that much over time).
Our nervous system responds to threats, perceived or real, in the same way it did thousands of years ago.
When we go through depersonalization, what happens is that we become hypersensitive. Our threat detection apparatus, the amygdala, goes into overdrive. This puts us in a hypervigilant mode where we are always on the lookout for threats. Basically, our body and mind think our survival is in great danger, and survival trumps everything else, including feeling relaxed, feeling positive emotions, feeling connected to yourself, and even feeling real.
During this hypersensitive phase, our brain comes up with all sorts of thoughts about potential danger. It wants us to be ready and be able to find our way through any danger. This is why it comes up with so many scary thoughts. The brain is trying to depict a scary scenario in the form of a what-if thought.
The brain is quick to come up with such thoughts as “What if I’m going insane?”, “What if I have a panic attack”, “Will this condition ever end?”, and “Is this person walking down the street a threat to my survival?” It’s constantly trying to pose to us a potential problem that we should be ready for.
But here’s the issue. These thoughts are helpful only when there is a real threat. In the case of depersonalization, there is no real underlying threat. The issue is that our emotional and primitive brain perceives a threat even when there is none.
The opposite of feeling threatened is feeling safe. So, the more we create a feeling of safety, the less scary thoughts we will experience.
In addition to that, there are also two strategies you can use to handle scary thoughts when they take over your mental space.
Analyze and Diffuse
When fear takes over, it compromises our reasoning ability. Our emotional (limbic) brain makes all the rules when we are in a state of hypervigilance. We get overwhelmed with fear. Fear suppresses rational thinking and instead makes us impulsive.
This can be a real boon when there is an actual threat. You can’t be sitting there and thinking in the face of real danger. You must act quickly.
However, where there is no imminent threat, as in the case of depersonalization, such emotional responses can cause more harm than good.
So, what can we do at such times? The first strategy that I propose is called Analyze and Diffuse.
Here’s what it entails: whenever a scary thought pops into your head, instead of immediately reacting with fear, try to analyze it and see if there’s any validity behind that fear. By using our rational intellect instead of our emotional thinking, we try to diffuse the power of this fear thought.
For example, one of my fear thoughts was “This is not depersonalization, it’s just a precursor to something more dangerous like schizophrenia.” This thought caused a lot of panic in me. My brain was trying to put this thought in front of me so I could be better prepared.
But when I put it under the microscope of my intellect and analyzed it, I saw that it was not based on any truth. I found out that there was no real connection between depersonalization and schizophrenia. I did not have anyone in my family that suffered from it (genetics play a very important role in its development). I was able to diffuse the intensity of this scary thought by examining whether it had any validity in the first place.
Here’s an exercise I propose to you. Write down all your scary thoughts and concerns. Now go through each one and try to use your rational thinking and come up with at least one reason why that fear thought is invalid.
Maybe you’ve written it down on a piece of paper, or it’s on a note-taking app on your phone. Ensure that this note is accessible to you at all times.
Whenever a scary thought pops up in your head, refer to this note and see why it’s not true. If it’s a new scary thought, then add it to the list and use the same process to refute it.
Accept and Allow
Sometimes, these scary, intrusive thoughts can be overwhelming. So much so that you cannot think straight or use the rational part of your brain to analyze and diffuse them. We sometimes get overtaken by our emotional brain.
When that happens, you can follow a different strategy: accept and allow.
When thoughts get overwhelming, we try to accept and allow them through.
In practice, this is what it looks like. Simply agree with the thought. Do not fight it or try to suppress it.
For example, you get overtaken by a scary thought that says, “I am going to completely lose touch with reality!” Just tell yourself, “So be it!” or “Let it happen!”
I know, I know, this sounds really scary. You may feel that if you accept and allow such thoughts and agree with them, then they are definitely going to come true. But you’ve got to understand that a thought does not have the ability to make anything happen to you.
By accepting and allowing, you take away the power this thought has over you. You are not offering any resistance to it. Without resistance, such scary thoughts tend to weaken gradually.
It’s like a game of poker. Your opponent might act as if he or she has a great hand and try to intimidate you into folding and walking away so that they can pocket the entire pot. But when you call their bluff, you find out that all they had going was a pair of 2s. You actually have the better hand.
Similarly, by saying to that scary thought, “So be it, let it happen,” you are calling its bluff. These scary thoughts only have power over you when you resist them and beg them to stop. The minute you accept and allow and say, “Yes, do what you want,” their power over you diminishes.
That doesn’t mean such unwanted thoughts will go away immediately. They’ll still keep coming back. But every time you analyze and diffuse or accept and allow, they will have a little less power over you.
When you couple these strategies with creating an underlying sense of safety, you’ll start to notice a real drop in scary and intrusive thoughts.
What are some of your fear thoughts? Drop them in the comments. Let’s try to analyze and diffuse them. If the accept and allow strategy works for you, then let me know about it.