You've been feeling down. You've also been anxious about situations in your life. You may be having panic attacks. But now you have a new symptom--the people around you seem lifeless and the objects you view seem somehow distorted, as if you were real, but everything around you is a dream. You may be experiencing a symptom known as derealization.
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Derealization is a symptom that occurs in many emotional illnesses, including depression, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, bipolar disorder, and dissociative identity disorder, also known as multiple personality disorder. Derealization can occur during or after recreational drug use episodes. The hallucinations that can accompany a high fever may also create feelings of derealization.
One of the first references to derealization in medical literature was psychiatrist Sigmund Freud's essay, "Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis," in which he described feelings of derealization that overwhelmed him during a 1904 visit to Athens, when he felt that the Acropolis, the ancient collection of classical Greek ruins, was not real.
Derealization has a twin symptom that is better known, depersonalization. During a depersonalization attack, you may feel as if your surroundings and other people are real, but you are unreal, like a ghost. Depersonalization takes place during the same illnesses and situations that trigger derealization. Both derealization and depersonalization can be transient experiences if you are healthy, or these symptoms can be chronic and signal the onset of a more serious emotional illness, as described by Jeffrey Abugel's online essay, "Strangers to Our Selves.".
Derealization In Literature
Derealization in combination with depression appeared in literature before being identified in medicine. The starving writer protagonist of Knut Hamsun's 1890 novel, "Hunger," clearly experiences forms of derealization and depersonalization. The ultimate example of derealization in literature is the viewpoint of the depressed central character, Meursault, of Albert Camus' 1942 novel, "The Stranger." Meursault feels that he personally is real, but that his circumstances are like a dream. He ends up committing a murder because his pervasive feelings of derealization prevent him from anticipating any consequences.
Derealization Symptom Severity
While in many instances, derealization is a symptom that disappears within a few minutes, some people are plagued by derealization and depersonalization for years. The most severe cases of derealization and depersonalization form part of dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personality disorder. One way to see how serious your symptoms of derealization and depersonalization are is to take the "Dissociative Experiences Scale" test. While the twenty-eight question test is intended to measure potential multiple personality disorder, it is also useful as a way of determining whether you have severe derealization or depersonalization symptoms.
If you had a high score on the Dissociative Experiences Scale, or you are having derealization experiences frequently, consider getting a therapist. A therapist can determine whether depression or another illness is producing your derealization symptoms, and can help you recover through counseling and medications. There are online support groups for people dealing with derealization and depersonalization that you can join to seek support.