Can you die from depersonalization? (Yes or No?)

In this brief article, we are going to answer the question “can you die from depersonalization?” and if yes, what the influencing factors are. We will also find out the symptoms, causal and risk factors and treatment for depersonalization.

Can you die from depersonalization?

No, you cannot die from depersonalization. Depersonalization is a condition in which a person feels unreal and detached from their body’s thoughts, sensations and actions. It is like experiencing a feeling of ‘being outside the body’. For example, seeing yourself as an observer in the room or looking at the mirror and not recognizing yourself.

Depersonalization can occur to an individual as a disorder on its own or as a symptom of any existing mental health condition or as a result of intoxication of any substance. Depersonalization, either way, is considered not dangerous or life-threatening.

Although depersonalization symptoms cannot cause you death, people report being depressed and suicidal as a result of their experiences of feeling detached from oneself. Experiencing depersonalization makes the individual think that he is going crazy or something is wrong with their brain. They relate their depersonalization experiences as scary and uncomfortable.

In a world where trying to convince people that you are depressed is quite a task, communicating to people about your experience of feeling like being stuck in a dream or feeling detached to one’s own body, thoughts, actions and sensations is like talking to deaf ears.

Being unable to figure out what is happening with them or to communicate with someone about what and how it feels like, the person might end up feeling lost and lonely. This hopelessness in turn would lead them going from scared and uncomfortable to being depressed and suicidal. 

People also report having existential thoughts like, ‘am I dead?’, ‘am I living in a dream?’, ‘am I real?’ or being convinced that he is dead, in purgatory or stuck in a dream constantly during depersonalization. These experiences all together make them unable to see past their pain and feel lonely.

According to a study that tried to test the ‘relationship between depersonalization and suicidality among depressed patients’, depressed people with depersonalization had more active and passive suicidal desire and planning (Research gate, 2017). A lot of other studies also support this finding that suicidality is more in depressed patients experiencing depersonalization.

Some people also reported feeling like their body is stuck in their mind and being unable to get back into his physical body. They also report to experience things and time in a distorted way, either too slow or too fast. This distortion in timing can sometimes be dangerous putting you at risk in situations like driving a car or a bike.

Therefore you cannot die from depersonalization symptoms even though depersonalization symptoms can cause you to take some life-threatening actions. Experts say depersonalization or derealization is not dangerous as it looks like.

Depersonalization/ Derealization Disorder

Depersonalization/ Derealization Disorder is a dissociative disorder in which a person experiences persistent or recurrent feelings of being detached either from one’s own body, thoughts and actions (depersonalization) or from the reality or one’s surrounding environment (derealization) or both.

Symptoms

        Depersonalization

Depersonalization primarily involves feeling detached from one’s own body, thoughts, actions and sensations as if you’re watching your life take place as an observer in the room. Other symptoms are

·   Feeling like living in a dream

·   feel unreal as if your movements and actions aren’t of your own

·   Feels like your body or even bodily sensations aren’t your own and somebody else is using them.

·   Despite feeling ‘unreal’ and ‘automated’, your reality testing remains intact

·   Fear of going insane

·   Distorted vision like blurring, visual snow etc. and feels everything is flat or is in 2D.

·   Distorted perception of time, like time is either too fast or too slow.

·   Sensation of memory loss affecting your short term memory

·   Emotional and physical numbness

·   Feeling distant and cut off from one’s own emotions.

·   Blank mind or being unable to put your thoughts together

         Derealization

Derealization involves feeling unreal and detached concerning one’s surroundings and environment.

·       Feels like being in a dream and the world outside looks foggy

·       Feels like looking at things through glass or having a tunnel vision.

·       Feels like the things in the external environment are distorted. Seeing this blurry or more clear, objects appearing smaller or larger

·       You are aware of your surroundings and know that the way you feel about is not real. i.e., reality testing is still intact.

People report these symptoms as significantly distressing and intolerable when severe. The episodes of depersonalization or derealization vary among people, with some people the episodes may pop in and pop out but with some, the experience is constant and is even more distressing.

Patients are more often found obsessing with existential thoughts like ‘am I crazy’ ‘am I dead’ etc. Some are even convinced that they are dead or they have irreversible brain damage. Others are preoccupied with the fear if they exist for real and keep checking if their perceptions and experiences are real.

Here the patients are aware of their environment and know that their experiences aren’t real. Patient’s intact reality testing differentiates this disorder from other psychotic disorders.

Diagnosis

It’s important to make sure that the episodes of depersonalization/ derealization aren’t a result of any intoxication or other mental health condition to make a diagnosis of depersonalization/derealization disorder.

According to DSM 5, a diagnosis of depersonalization/derealization disorder can be made if there is:

  • Persistent or recurrent episodes of depersonalization, derealization, or both
  • During the depersonalization/ derealization episodes, the person’s reality testing remains intact
  • The symptoms cause significant distress or impairment of social or occupational functioning.

Causes and Risk factors

Biological, psychological, and environmental factors might play a role in one’s experience of depersonalization/ derealization episodes. It’s often seen that the symptoms are triggered by stressful and traumatic events.

Traditional psychodynamic formulations focused on the disintegration of the ego and explained that depersonalization is one’s affective response to defend their ego. And therefore suggests that overwhelming and painful events or conflictual impulses can trigger depersonalization symptoms.

Several studies findings support the notion that stress and fatigue are common causes of depersonalization and derealization symptoms. These stressful events can be even from the past, like emotional, physical and sexual abuse in childhood, experiencing parental negligence in childhood etc.

Prognosis

The symptoms associated with this disorder often go away on their own or after appropriate treatment. Sometimes even helping the person to deal with the stress or trauma that triggered the symptoms are successful in treating them.

It’s also seen that depersonalization symptoms that occur as a result of traumatic experience or intoxication usually subsides after the removal of the traumatic circumstances or once the episode of intoxication ends.

Depersonalization accompanying mood, psychotic or other anxiety disorders commonly remits with the definitive treatment of those conditions.  

Treatment

To address all the stresses associated with the onset of the symptoms as well as the earlier stresses is the major goal of the treatment for depersonalization/ derealization disorder. Treatment usually is needed only when the disorder is lasting or recurrent, or if the symptoms are particularly distressing to the person. The treatment approach varies from individual to individual and depends on the severity of the symptoms.

 Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy involves helping the person by the means of some psychological techniques to recognize and communicate their thoughts and feelings about those internal conflicts that triggered depersonalization symptoms. Also helping them to cope with the symptoms better.

·   Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – involves teaching patient strategies to block obsessive thoughts about feeling things unreal as well as some distraction techniques.

·   Grounding techniques – that involves helping the person cope with the symptoms by calling on the senses and feel more in touch with reality.

·   Psychodynamic techniques – that involves working through the person’s internal conflicts and negative feelings that they tend to detach from.

·   Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a treatment method that involves eight phases focusing on the person’s past, the present, and the future by breaking any link that exists between certain circumstances of your life and symptoms. Each phase helps the person work through his emotional distress and trauma and to learn skills to cope with current and future stress

Medication

Although professionals usually prescribe anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants to help symptoms of the condition, there are no specific medications approved for treating this disorder alone.

Other modes of treatment for depersonalization/ derealization disorder can be:

Family therapy – that involves educating the family about the disorder and its causes and encouraging the family to provide a supportive environment for the patient to cope with the condition.

Creative therapies (art therapy, music therapy) that encourage and allow the patient to explore and express his or her thoughts, feelings and emotions safely and creatively.

Conclusion

In this brief article, we answered the question ‘can you die from depersonalization?’

We found out that even though depersonalization looks scary, one cannot die from depersonalization. We also found that depersonalization can sometimes result in depression and suicidality in people.

We also discussed what is depersonalization and its symptoms. Depersonalization can be diagnosed as a disorder of its own, depersonalization/ derealization disorder. Depersonalization also occurs as symptoms of other psychological problems like depression, anxiety, and seizure.

We also discussed the disorder’s aetiology, prognosis and treatment towards the end.

FAQs: Can you die from depersonalization?

 Is depersonalization dangerous?

No, depersonalization/ derealization is not dangerous. Although depersonalization looks scary, they are more like a defence to your ego against anxiety or any threat. The National Alliance of Mental Illness says 75% of people experience at least one episode depersonalization. Recurrent and persistent experience of depersonalization are treatable and have a high recovery rate.

How long can depersonalization disorder last?

For few people depersonalization occurs only for one episode, for some, it comes and goes and for others, it stays constant. The depersonalization episodes may last for hours or days or weeks, months, or sometimes years and it varies from person to person.

 Can depersonalization lead to psychosis?

No, depersonalization does not lead to psychosis. Although the disorder is an alteration in the person’s experience of reality, it is not a form of psychosis, as the person’s reality testing remains intact throughout the episodes.

Is depersonalization a part of the near-death experience?

No, depersonalization is not like near-death experiences. But some people report having dissociative episodes during their near-death experience.

How common is depersonalization disorder?

About 50% of the population experience depersonalization as a symptom of an existing mental health problem. However, only less 2% of the population experience depersonalization/derealization as a separate diagnosable disorder suggesting that it’s quite rare. 

REFERENCES

·   https://www.msdmanuals.com/professional/psychiatric-disorders/dissociative-disorders/depersonalization-derealization-disorder#:~:text=Depersonalization%2Fderealization%20disorder%20is%20a,of%20being%20detached%20from%20one’s

·   https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313736202_Relationship_of_depersonalization_and_suicidality_in_depressed_patients

·   https://www.verywellmind.com/derealization-2671582

·   https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/depersonalization-disorder-mental-health#1

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.