Derealization is defined as the sense or perception of the world as somehow faded, far away, and unreal. This feeling can be brought about by a variety of events and / or conditions:

Derealization is sometimes categorized together with depersonalization, a notion held by a person that they are somehow not real. One might even argue that the difference between the states of depersonalization and derealization is trivial; after all, in each state there is a distinct mental rift between what is and is not the self.

Some individuals actively seek out a sense of derealization, believing it to be a state in which the true nature of the universe (arbitrary, meaningless unless we give it meaning) can be clearly observed. If such individuals are successful, their derealization might lack the element of fear that marks the experiences of those who are unwillingly thrust into a world that is as translucent and elusive as a fading dream.

Derealization due to panic and / or trauma is quite unpleasant for the sufferer. The person knows that he / she exists (obviously someone has to be feeling the fear!) but is doubtful that the collective reality of others is accessible to them. They feel as if things could just crumble into dusty nothingness at any moment. Life seems precarious all the time; these people walk on eggshells around their own existence.

This sort of derealization has been treated with varying success rates. Drugs that seek to minimize anxiety, such as SSRIs or benzodiazepines are often employed, with the hope that treating the underlying cause (excessive anxiety) will in turn bring the person back to a sense that the world is, indeed, real.

Some rather frightening visual disturbances can occur with advanced or severe derealization. The sufferer might perceive objects to be fuzzy-edged, shimmery, or spatially distorted. Colors may seem to shift in hue, and shadows take on a life of their own. This, to me, sounds rather like the effects of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD. It makes sense them that perhaps derealization represents a profound change in brain chemistry from the norm.

Changes in time perception are also common in derealization. Time can seem to slow down and speed up at random, more so than it does for the "normal" individual. Sometimes it may even seem that there is a delay between an event happening and the derealized individual's perception of the event. This phenomenon may be frightening and disconcerting, but it also offers a unique window into the subjectivity of human experience of time.

Overall, derealization's effect on a person depends largely on the severity of the episode and on the person's frame of mind. It can be an enlightening experience or a frightening one, but it is certainly indicative of the great complexity and strangeness of the human mind.


Several weeks ago, I had an episode of derealization and depersonalization, lasting with various severity for one or two weeks. During this time, I also had a tooth and inner ear infection that required a root canal. The link between this infection and my psychological state was formed in various ways: pain, sleeplessness, anxiety and perhaps a reaction to several drugs given to me tipped me over into an unusual, and unpleasant state. There was also some unpleasant anxiety with my housing situation, which is somewhat relevant to the feeling.

There are many different aspects of derealization and depersonalization, and I can hardly claim to be a clinical expert based on one or two weeks of feeling it. However, I do have one good way to explain the feeling.

Like most people, I've moved many times in my life. I know the feeling of stepping into a spotlessly clean and featureless apartment or house, and how that feeling of emptiness and contextlessness rapidly fades as memories and associations and physical cruft collect, turning an arbitrary space into something that feels like a home. And things around me become comfortable and familiar, and I have dozens or hundreds of little things to remind me of who and where I am. But then I've also left a house, and seen the process reversed, seen something that meant so much to me turn back into an anonymous structure. And sometimes, inbetween times, I will have little glimpses and reminders of what things around me really look like, outside of me emotional connections. And what depersonalization felt like was that feeling written across the world: I was in a strange room, a strange house, a strange town, a strange world. (Incidentally, I was in a strange town, in an unstable housing situation, but that doesn't quite explain how I felt.) It was like I was walked into a house that was decorated similar to my house, but was not exactly my house. I intellectually knew that it was, that everything was the same, but the weight of associations was suddenly and inexplicably lifted.

The whole thing is easy to explain in these terms, but woefully inadequate. Looking at what I wrote now, it seems silly that it changed me as much as it did, that a week of feeling something as theoretical as "my emotional associations with my surroundings are no longer there" could become the worst week of my life. (Although I should point out that dental pain added another element of misery to this).

One thing should be said about this: certain aspects of this don't sound too terrible, and at times they are not. This is not an angsty or existentialist experience of asking myself how did I get into this shotgun shack?. This is also not a sudden breath of newness that makes us question the structures we have built up for ourselves. It bears passing reference to those things, in perhaps the same way that Tabasco sauce bears a resemblance to actually burning your mouth with a red hot piece of metal. This has an immediacy and unpleasantness to it that makes it hard to compare with other things. In other words, although it might bear a slight resemblance to experiences that are not all bad, derealization and depersonalization are not the new rock and roll.

My experience went away for two reasons. First, much of my situational problems were solved. I found support, got healthier, and had a root canal, and slept a whole bunch. Second, I believe that (at least for me), there was a nadir of confusion that was hit and there was a natural recovery from it. I don't know, and my experience is not objectively or subjectively standard compared to other's experiences. I don't know if it a self-resolving and limited problem for everyone. And right now, as much as I have written this down and objectively remember that I felt subjectively terrible, it is hard for me to recapture just why I was so afraid and confused when the feelings of derealization came across me.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.