Derealisation – the mind’s defence mechanism.

When a computer has too many tabs open, what happens? Loading programs and websites slows down but its components speed up, heat up, and whir like crazy.

Just like a computer which has been overloaded by too many processes, the mind can start to panic when too many things are going on at once.

For me, one of the most destabilising and disruptive physical manifestations of intense stress and anxiety is a symptom known as derealisation. It is essentially a safety mechanism used by the brain to tune out the world when things become too intense. Unfortunately, it can be triggered all too frequently, making everyday life very difficult until it passes.

It’s similar to depersonalisation, although that is more of an ‘out of body’ experience, where you might feel like you’re watching yourself from outside your body. Derealisation is more about how we make sense of and experience our surroundings. If you wear glasses or contact lenses, it’s a bit like the difference between good or bad vision. Without our glasses, it can feel disorientating and hard to focus on objects.

When your body goes into fight or flight you get an adrenaline rush that helps you run away from a predator. But when the conflict is inside of you it’s harder to escape, so the brain disassociates as a protective measure. It’s an automatic response that allows the psyche to hide from itself or the world when there’s no other escape.

Derealisation: what does it feel like?

Life becomes one big dream. I process my surroundings in a fog-like state, living behind a screen or sheet of glass. I feel so sleepy, like drowsiness has taken over despite 8, 9 or 10 hours of sleep the night before. I feel dizzy and my muscles feel a bit weak. My reactions are slowed down too (if I attempted a game of squash I’d probably get hit in the head before moving my racket). I feel drunk and just really spaced out. I can’t emphasise that part enough.

Reading or holding a conversation become a big no-no. I just can’t handle the sensory overload. All I want to do is crawl into bed, within a dark room, curl up and close my eyes. It’s a big protective mechanism.

What helps?

Not too much, except time, acceptance and waiting for the fog to pass. Panicking about the issue just makes things worse as it keeps levels of anxiety at a high level. Sometimes it can help trying to ground myself in the local environment by focusing on an object. How does it feel? What does it look like? Mindfulness can help try to bring us back, although there’s not one magic bullet.

Otherwise, I recommend baths. My eyes feel squidgy (technical term, I know!) and cold (not sure if that makes sense), and my muscles are often fatigued. A hot bath with salts can help to detoxify the body and the warmth seems to help.

Preventing future episodes

Stressful life events are inevitable and there are always going to be times in our lives which contain uncertainty and change. Living in a city can make life feel even more chaotic and fast-paced.

The key is learning how to manage these uncertainties and all our life responsibilities. My coping strategies in preventing future outbreaks are as follows:

  1. Focusing on one activity at a time. Multitasking, I have found, just speeds up the brain and takes you out of the present moment.
  2. Remaining in the Now. Try not to jump too far ahead or dwell on the past. Use these experiences to assist in the practical decision-making processes of the now but try not to let the unconscious mind rule your life. In times of stress, direct your attention to the physical feelings in the body, and just let it be without resistance.
  3. Digital detoxes. This is particularly crucial as a freelancer. If not managed, constant checking of social media and emails is unhealthy for many reasons: we compare ourselves to others, we are not focusing on the moment, we are multitasking (ahem, multifailing) and impairing our attention spans, we fall into a trap of seeking acceptance and an adrenaline boost from ‘likes’, we fail to notice what is going on in the real world around us.

To summarise, derealisation is uncomfortable but not life-threatening. That doesn’t make it any less debilitating, mind you. I’m on a mission to find things which help and until then, will continue to work on reducing my overall anxiety, so that these dissociative states will hopefully reduce.


2 thoughts on “Derealisation – the mind’s defence mechanism.

  1. Ben says:

    Hi Emma, this post was written 3yrs ago, I suffer from the same thing now from a recent panic attack from to much anxiety. Have you found relief from your derealization period? Or is it still present?


    • Emma Wilson says:

      Hi Ben, thanks for your message and I’m really sorry to hear about this. I definitely still get this when I have sensory overload, particularly in busy social settings. In those moments I try to get away from the situation to get some fresh air for a bit, focusing on being present (i.e., mindfulness, focusing on my senses). It’s better than before, but I also think a slowing down over the past year or so due to the pandemic has helped that. It can depend on what your triggers are. I hope you get some relief soon.


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