What Is Depersonalization? How Does It Relate To Trauma?


Depersonalization creates a protective barrier against trauma; however, the phenomenon itself may feel even more distressing than its cause. Below, we define depersonalization compared to other experiences, explore the connection between depersonalization and trauma, and cover ways to make depersonalization feel less uncomfortable.

What is depersonalization?

Many of us confuse depersonalization with dissociation and derealization. We throw these words around interchangeably, to describe feeling “off” or disconnected from oneself; however, they are not synonyms. Although each of these experiences relates in some way to trauma, they represent distinct phenomena.

We’re focusing on depersonalization in this article, but let’s get all the terms straight:

Often, depersonalization is referred to as dissociation; however, the term “dissociation” is too broad to capture the depersonalized experience. Dissociation refers more to a general disconnect from any number of experiences, interactions, or sensations.  

Derealization makes you feel disconnected from what’s going on in the world (e.g., feeling like you’re watching a movie instead of being a part of events that are unfolding) and/or feeling like the things around you are warped (e.g., wrong size or color). When someone feels derealized, the connection to their sense of self remains, while the connection to a feeling of reality disappears.

Depersonalization, on the other hand, can be seen as the opposite: one’s sense of reality remains, while sense self disintegrates. Depersonalization arises as a dreamlike state, where you experience your thoughts, feelings, actions, etc. from a hazy distance. It is like having an out of body experience as you go through the world. Your experiences don’t feel real to you. Depersonalization, specifically, means feeling a disconnect from your self (your thoughts, feelings, perceptions, or physical form).

To keep everything straight, here’s a quick summary of the differences between the three:

Dissociation = disconnected from general things

Derealization = people and surroundings aren’t real

Depersonalization = disconnected from self; self isn’t real

The Relationship Between Depersonalization and Trauma

Depersonalization has been conceptualized as a protective mechanism against trauma. War, abuse, accidents, natural disasters, etc. are all situations which seem to lead to depersonalization. In the same vein, complex trauma like dysfunction at home, or bullying, can also lead to feelings of depersonalization.

Trauma occurs when the brain or body feels helpless to act against perceived threat; as such, trauma can be induced physically or mentally. Either way, trauma leads us to employ protective mechanisms that save us in the moment, but which can lead to discomfort in daily life.

Exhibit A: Depersonalization

By disconnecting from yourself while experiencing a traumatic event, you can be shielded from the emotional and mental repercussions of experiencing that trauma. However, trauma-induced protective mechanisms stick around long after the traumatic event itself. After an initial trauma, depersonalization can occur anytime, swooping to your defense when traumatic memories are triggered, during panic attacks, and as a result of general anxiety.

Though depersonalization can create a protective barrier between you and your emotional distress, it can create the even more traumatic experience of feeling unreal.

You become trapped in a bubble where you don’t feel like you even exist, and as a result, you may feel fully out-of-control. You may experience a vicious cycle of depersonalization, emotional distress, increased depersonalization, more emotional distress, etc. This phenomenon comes from the evolutionary impulse to protect yourself, albeit in a very uncomfortable way.

What To Do When You Feel Depersonalized

Remember that while depersonalization is upsetting, you are going to be okay. Over time, with some effort, you’ll learn to stay more closely connected to your sense of self and bypass the derealizing impulse altogether. Here are some specific ways to work toward that goal:

Try not to fight it

Your brain may disconnect from its sense of self while trying to protect you from stress. By actively fighting the depersonalization symptoms, you bring your stress levels up, which can cause the aforementioned stress-dissociation loop. By fighting what is more or less an automatic defense mechanism, you create extra internal stress, which may increase both the severity and the frequency of depersonalization episodes.

Giving into and accepting the experience of depersonalization does not mean that you will never be free of it. Accept that you will sometimes feel this way, and that it happens as a response to stress. This should help you stress less about the experience itself. And diminishing your stress levels will reduce your brain’s need to depersonalize.

Curiosity > fear

Try to approach these episodes from a place of curiosity rather than fear or dread. Why am I depersonalized now, of all times? Did something stress me out, even subconsciously? Was there a trigger back to my old trauma? Notice what’s happening in your mind, rather than thinking about why it’s so bad.

Actively de-stress

A lot of working through depersonalization is reducing your stress levels. Exercising, for example, is a great way to bring down your stress levels, though it may feel daunting when you’re having an out of body experience. If you can convince your body that it’s safe through exercise, your brain may take the cue and feel less of a need to depersonalize.

Put together a list of things that work for you, and start doing them when you feel an episode of depersonalization coming on. Different things de-stress different people, so don’t feel pressured to do things that make you feel uncomfortable. The point of doing these things is to make you feel more at ease and relaxed.

Try therapy

Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of trauma-oriented therapy that has been shown to help with depersonalization. Besides specific therapies to move through trauma, a therapist can give you helpful techniques to deal with your experiences of depersonalization before, during, and after an episode. In addition, they can help you work through the emotional roots of depersonalization. By addressing the core causes of your depersonalization, the episodes should become few and far between.

Utilize peer support

Last but not least, peer support can help when you feel lost and detached. For example, Supportiv is a wonderful option to remind you you’re an autonomous, beautiful, unique person others are capable of seeing–even when you have trouble seeing or sensing your own self. In addition, peers can share their techniques for dealing with depersonalization and remind you that you are not alone in this. You will get through it, and you don’t have to do it alone.

Depersonalization is hard. Feeling detached from yourself is a scary experience, but by learning more about why your brain does it, how to minimize the effects, and how to reduce its frequency, you can make it less of a disruption to your life. You are not trapped by your trauma in depersonalization; your inner world won’t always operate according to those scars.