Derealization: what is it, characteristics and causes of this disorder?
Derealization is a dissociative phenomenon that alters perception. Let's see its characteristics.
Derealization is one of those psychological phenomena that patients who experience it and come to psychotherapy find most difficult to describe..
They explain that they feel disconnected from their environment, or even from their family. Not simply emotionally disenchanted, like someone who has suffered a disappointment or disillusionment, but almost literally disconnected: as if oneself and others were part of different worlds.
Sometimes derealization is part of psychological disorders that can last for months or years if left untreated, and sometimes it is a passing experience that never comes back. In any case, it is important to know this alteration of perception, and that is why in this article I will explain what it consists of.
What is derealization and what are the characteristics of this alteration?
One of the most researched topics throughout the development of psychology as a science is the following: where does our perception of the here and now, what we are aware of at each moment, come from?
This question has fascinated many philosophers and scientists for centuries, because there is an apparent contradiction in it. After centuries of understanding the human body as something like a machine with different sensor systems (our senses), our consciousness does not consist of a grouping of stimuli that reach us in different ways, but we experience it as a whole, a phenomenon that we cannot divide into sub-sections.
Nowadays this unknown is no longer so surprising, because by dint of research on the functioning of the brain and its relationship with the psychological, it has been proven that behind the apparent unity of consciousness and the experience of perceiving things, there are several relatively independent processes coordinating with each other. processes coordinating with each other. That is why, although we take for granted that the possibility of using language is a single type of ability, there are people with brain lesions who can articulate words when speaking, but cannot understand speech, just as there are others who practically cannot speak, but do understand what is said to them.
Derealization is another of those examples that behind an apparently homogeneous and unitary psychological phenomenon, there are different elements that in certain circumstances can show where they begin and where they end.
In this case, we are talking about an experience in which even though technically we perceive the same objective elements and we can represent all of them in our mind, we notice that there is something in that perceptual experience that fails, that is out of place.. This happens because although everything that our senses capture is captured in our consciousness, the psychological processes of recognition and emotional reaction to the stimuli is altered.
As a result, in derealization we have the subjective sensation that what we perceive is separate from us, or does not belong to our plane of existence; we feel strangeness before what we see, touch and/or hear, as if it were part of a movie set, or a simulacrum. However, not because it is a subjective sensation, derealization ceases to be real.. It is a psychological phenomenon that can be (and has been) studied scientifically.
Its relationship with depersonalization
A phenomenon similar to derealization is depersonalization depersonalization, in which what is perceived in a rarefied way is one's own body or even one's own thoughts.. Both are examples of dissociative symptoms that appear in association with some psychological or psychiatric disorders, but, as we shall see, they are not always the expression of a severe problem.
In what situations can derealization occur?
From what we have seen so far, derealization seems to be something unpleasant, or at least disturbing. And the truth is that in most cases it is experienced as something negative. However, this is not always a reason to be alarmed, it is not always a reason for alarm.
That said, let's see what are the most common causes of derealization.
1. Maintenance of a high level of anxiety
The wear and tear generated by anxiety over a relatively long period of time (for example, due to the preparation of an important exam) can facilitate the appearance of derealization as a fleeting alteration of perception. This is caused by possible momentary imbalances in the nervous and hormonal activity in our body.. In cases like this we do not even have to talk about suffering from a psychological disorder.
2. Panic disorder
In panic disorder there is a sudden and very extreme rise in the level of anxiety. This produces alterations not only in perception, but also cognitive alterations (what we think and the type of decisions we make), as well as physical symptoms such as sweating, increased Blood pressure, dizziness, etc.
As is the case with many dissociative phenomena, derealization can also be caused by trauma. is one of the consequences of this kind of painful emotional marks that remain imprinted in our memory..
In fact, it is estimated that it appears (with more or less intensity) in most cases in which traumatic experiences occur.
4. Consumption of psychoactive substances
The consumption of some drugs can cause the emergence of derealization, and even delusional thoughts associated with it (e.g., believing that we are involuntarily participating in a play).
Can it be treated in therapy?
Derealization can be addressed in the context of therapy by helping the patient to manage the physiological causes.. As we have seen, this is a perceptual alteration closely linked to anxiety, so in psychological therapy we work to "train" the person in the modulation of their attentional focus and in the adoption of strategies to not continue feeding this state of high activation of the nervous system.
Are you interested in psychotherapeutic support?
If you are thinking of going to a psychology office and start a psychotherapy process, please contact me. My name is Fernando Azor LafargaI am a psychologist specializing in adults and seniors, as well as Director of the center Azor & Associates, from which I perform both face-to-face psychological therapy sessions and online therapy via video call.
I have been working for many years in the field of clinical and health psychology as well as in expert psychology and aeronautical psychology, and also collaborating with various media as a communicator on topics related to psychology and mental health in general. To learn more about how I work, see my author profile.
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(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)