What is depersonalization/derealization disorder?

Depersonalization/derealization disorder is the feeling of being detached from one’s thoughts, feelings, and body (depersonalization), and/or disconnected from one’s surrounding environment (derealization).

People with this disorder do not lose contact with reality. They realize that their odd perceptions are not real. Depersonalization and/or derealization also might be symptoms of other disorders, including brain diseases and seizure disorders.

Depersonalization/derealization disorder is one of a group of conditions called dissociative disorders. Dissociative disorders are mental illnesses that involve disruptions or breakdowns of memory, consciousness or awareness, identity and/or perception—mental functions that normally work smoothly.

When one or more of these functions is disrupted, dissociative symptoms can result. These symptoms can interfere with a person’s general functioning, both in their personal life and at work.

How common is depersonalization/derealization disorder?

Transient depersonalization or derealization experiences are common, estimated to occur in about 50% of the population. However, depersonalization/derealization as a separate diagnosable disorder is quite rare, occurring in less than 2% of the population.

Most people with depersonalization/derealization disorder develop the illness when they are quite young; the average age of onset is 16 years. Finally, depersonalization/derealization can be symptoms of other psychiatric disorders, such as dementia and schizophrenia.

What are the symptoms of depersonalization/derealization disorder?

The primary symptom of depersonalization is a distorted perception of feeling disconnected from one’s thoughts, feelings, and body. Derealization is a similar feeling of being disconnected, but from one’s surroundings or environment. Some with this disorder might feel like a robot, or observe themselves from outside their body, or live in a dream world. Some people might fear they are going crazy, or become depressed, anxious, or panicky.

For some people, the symptoms are mild and last for just a short time. For others, however, symptoms can be chronic (ongoing) and last or recur for many years, leading to problems with daily functioning. In some cases chronic depersonalization/derealization can lead to disability.

What causes depersonalization/derealization disorder?

Little is known about the causes of depersonalization/derealization disorder, but biological and environmental factors may both play a role. Some people appear to be more prone to develop dissociative disorders, either because they are neurologically less reactive to emotions, or because they may have certain personality disorders. Many dissociative disorders are triggered by experiencing intense stress or trauma, such as war, abuse, accidents, natural disasters, or violence.