Depersonalisation or feeling disconnected from yourself or reality can be very disconcerting – after all our identity and perspective is massively important to how we see and interpret the world around us. It also isolates us from this idea of belonging, to ourselves, to those around us and to wider society – something that’s quite prevalent for those with anxiety.
As with a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, the triggers lie within our caveman brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. Its primary concern is keeping us alive, so when our brain perceives a threat, it releases these stress chemicals and activates a response called the fight, flight or freeze response. The stress hormone cortisol or the chemical adrenaline are released and this puts our body on high alert, and as a result, our body prepares to either fight, flight or freeze.
How Can Anxiety Cause Depersonalisation?
There’s a few reasons why anxiety might cause depersonalisation, the first being that when our body goes into fight, flight or freeze mode, our primordial caveman brain shuts down our rational prefrontal cortex so that we can solely focus on instant action and survival. However, when this happens we lose our ability to make decisions, problem solve or evaluate which are integral to our identity and how we deal with situations. This, therefore, feels like we’re no longer in control of our body, leading to feelings of depersonalisation.
Another reason is that during this process, our hippocampus is also suppressed. This is the area of the brain responsible for our memories, and it’s temporarily shut down so that we can more efficiently process the information that’s happening immediately in front of us. However, our memories are a huge part of our identity and when we can’t draw on them for help or for reassurance, it can further perpetuate our anxiety-driven physical symptoms.
Finally, the way in which we breathe can have an effect on our feelings of depersonalisation. Too much or too little oxygen or carbon dioxide in our blood can lead to dizziness and lightheadedness that can contribute to the feeling that the situation is happening to someone else, or in a dream-like way.
How Can I Stop This Symptom?
As this symptom stems from our fight, flight or freeze response, the main thing that we can do to combat it is to focus on our breathing and allow it to become neither too shallow, or too deep to prevent hyper or hypoventilation. This should calm our central nervous system, distract our mind from the perceived threat, and deactivate our fight, flight or freeze response allowing our rational brain to kick back in and regain a sense of who we are.
Of course, in order to prevent the symptoms of anxiety occurring in the first place, you need to manage or build strategies to tackle your anxiety. There are several options available including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), mindfulness, medication and group therapy. If you’re unsure, please contact your GP for more information.