Depersonalization is a harmless, but often very troubling, mental state characterized by a disruption in one’s self-perception and awareness. The sufferer’s thoughts, emotions and actions feel detached, unreal or foreign, as if they are not a part of oneself.

Depersonalization, as well as derealization (the feeling that the external world is unreal), is the most prominent symptom in dissociative disorders, such as dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder). Depersonalization may also occur as a result of extreme anxiety, panic, sleep deprivation, other mental disorders and certain types of drug use or withdrawal. In some patients, for example, long-term use of benzodiazepines can induce chronic depersonalization and perceptual disturbances. Withdrawal from benzodiazepines can result in the same.

People who are suffering from depersonalization feel separated from their own physicality, meaning that their own feelings, emotions, bodily sensations and movements feel detached from themselves. These symptoms are very disturbing and lead to even higher levels of anxiety, further exacerbating the feelings of detachment.

While anyone experiencing stress or severe insomnia can have short bouts of mild to moderate depersonalization, those who have undergone trauma or prolonged anxiety may begin having more severe, chronic depersonalization/derealization symptoms. When symptoms are long-term, it is known as depersonalization-derealization disorder.

Depersonalization is a fairly common mental state, coming in third only after anxiety and depression. In one study, researchers found that students who scored high on the depersonalization/derealization subscale of the Dissociative Experiences Scale had a more pronounced cortisol response.

When depersonalization sets in, it is often advisable to notice one’s physical surroundings and to purposefully remain in the present moment. For example, it is helpful to name the objects in one’s immediate surroundings — chair, table, phone, cat. Say aloud your name, the date, your address, etc. Stay grounded and present. Depersonalization can be scary, but it is not harmful.

Example: A woman awakens from a frightening dream and feels strangely unlike her usual self. When she gets up to wash her face, she gets the strange feeling that she is outside of her body, watching herself from the bathroom doorway.