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Depersonalisation: My four months of terror

Wednesday, 12 September 2018 Callum

Callum talks about his experiences of depersonalisation and how confronting it helped him address his anxiety.

Depersonalisation is extremely alarming because the onset of it is so sudden. I can remember the exact moment when my experience of it began. I was sat on my sofa in my student house when I suddenly had the sense that I had lost my sense of self; in an instant I felt like my ego was gone. In that same moment a surge of panic overwhelmed me – a surge of panic which would remain for every waking moment over the next four months. I went on a long walk, trying to rationalise with myself and to talk myself out of the panic, but to no avail. I trembled in bed the whole of that night, sweating profusely. I eventually fell asleep from exhaustion at 5 a.m.

"It was almost impossible to believe anything other than the idea that I was going to feel like this for the rest of my life."

Indeed, exhaustion was a key feature of the next four months. Floods of frightening thoughts would come into my head throughout the day and manifest as nightmares as I slept. These thoughts would come and go at tremendous speed so that sometimes I could barely catch what they were. I constantly tried to think my way out of these thoughts and feelings in order to make the panic stop. It was almost impossible to believe anything other than the idea that I was going to feel like this for the rest of my life. I had a peculiar sense of hyper-reality, was constantly obsessed by existential questions and even the most mundane thoughts and objects could send a surge of anxiety through my body. I could only describe the feeling as like acid flowing through my veins. I did not recognise myself in mirrors. The people I loved and who were closest to me looked like total strangers. Not only that, they looked like frightening monsters of some kind. It was such a frightening and bizarre feeling that I began to fear that there was something physically wrong with my brain.

Depersonalisation is not dangerous - for me it was merely a symptom of my anxiety (albeit an extremely distressing one). Indeed, depersonalisation is one of the most common mental health complaints. This was something that I actually knew, but it was impossible to convince myself of it at the time because my thoughts were running too fast for me to think rationally and my baseline anxiety was simply too high.

This was a problem because it meant that it was almost impossible to engage with one of the foundational concepts of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – the most consistent method of treating anxiety. Any attempt I made to challenge my unhelpful thoughts simply led to me fighting with myself and my anxiety increasing. I was frightened of my thoughts.

"I made no attempt to change my thoughts but tried to welcome them as friends."

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works on the principle that our thoughts, behaviours and feelings all influence each other and that feelings of anxiety or depression are caused by negative thinking and behavioural patterns. Since I found it impossible to challenge my thoughts, I turned to challenging my behaviours. This was the key to recovering. I made no attempt to change my thoughts but tried to welcome them as friends. However, I would also make sure that my day-to-day behaviours were as helpful as possible. I would be sure not to avoid situations on the basis that they would make me panic. I came to accept that I could not change my thoughts and feelings directly. However, I could change my behaviours.

The most instructive example of this was the decision to take up running. The benefits of aerobic exercise on general wellbeing are well-documented and I found that my anxiety levels dropped dramatically during the actual time I spent running. My thoughts would be identical but the feelings would not. The thoughts would simply sit there as I ran but without any particularly strong emotion attached to them. In short, my thoughts had not changed, but my behaviour had and therefore, my feelings had.

"I now understand that fighting panic only intensifies it."

Today, I am extremely grateful for the experience. I’m sure that anyone suffering from depersonalisation would scream in disbelief at me saying that. However, depersonalisation is often maintained by a fear of it. By addressing my anxiety the feeling of depersonalisation slowly faded.

Depersonalisation meant that I was forced to confront the anxiety disorder which I had ignored for so long. Depersonalisation no longer permitted me to ignore it, nor to try and think my way out of my feelings or evade them. That was the key to overcoming panic attacks. I now understand that fighting panic only intensifies it. Amazingly, I eventually learned to welcome it. And in doing so, it disappeared.

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