Stuck in a Dream?

"USC Student Blog" - Big Head Bob & Friends Blog - "While these tips do not resolve my feelings of DISSOCIATION, they are helpful and give me a boost of confidence to keep trying." - Big Head Bob is standing next to a wall that separates them from the world, as a metaphor to feeling dissociated.

Living with Dissociation: Navigating Depersonalization and Derealization

Have you ever blanked out during a stressful situation before being brought back to reality? More than half of the world population has felt the sensation of being dissociated from reality for a brief moment. For 2% of the population, people feel that sense of dissociation for a long term without being able to snap out of it. *Although that percentage seems small, that accounts for 160 million people. And I just so happen to be a part of that 2%.

So what exactly is dissociation/depersonalization/derealization? As it is an under researched topic in the psychology community, it is no wonder that it is not as much of a familiar term such as depression or anxiety. However, derealization is actually a symptom of anxiety: your brain lessens the intensity of the real life situation, or “blanks out” for a bit, to protect itself from feeling too pressured from the real world. This feeling usually develops during late childhood or early adulthood. The average age it starts is around 16, and 95% of cases are diagnosed before age 25. *It can also happen during earlier stages of life during childhood as children find dissociation an easy way to break away from traumatic experiences.

For anyone who might be feeling this way, or might know someone who is but doesn't know how to help, I wanted to dedicate this blog to you. I am by no means a licensed professional but here are some tips and tricks that I found helpful when I’m experiencing intense depersonalization/derealization:

  • I usually notice I dissociate under bright fluorescent lights. Your pupils shrink when you feel threatened, helping you focus on the danger. However, this can become unproductive when bright, fluorescent lights keep your pupils shrunk and make your body stay at a fight-or-flight stage. Therefore, when I feel like I’m anxious or dissociating, I find it helpful to dim down the fluorescent lights which will help expand the dilation of your pupils.
  • Doing breathing exercises help you stay present. I like to do the “Core breath” breathing exercise because it helps expand my breathing capacity, and trains my abs at the same time haha. What you do is breathing in through your nose until you reach your maximum capacity, hold it for 1 second, and then quickly exhale through your mouth until you run out of air, and then hold for 3 seconds, before you repeat for 1 minute.
  • Recently, with the encouragement from my friends, family, and David from Big Head Bob, I decided to see a school therapist at USC. My second session helped me discover a strategy for feeling safe in an environment that felt “unreal.” What I found helpful was to identify things I see, and give them more context and relate the object to myself. For example, I would see a chair in front of me, and think to myself: this is a chair, this is a gray chair, I don’t like the holes in the chairs, although it seems like a comfortable chair, and the color schemes remind me of a movie theater. Doing this helps bring me back into the environment because I am connecting my personal opinions to that object. 

While these tips do not resolve my feelings of dissociation, they are helpful and give me a boost of confidence to keep trying. I am not defined by my dissociation and can always choose to focus on something else that brings me joy and gratitude. Reach out to trusted friends, family, or even better, a licensed professional to talk about these feelings if you are comfortable in doing so. Thank you so much for reading! 

Short articles to read: Depersonalization-derealization disorder by Mayo Clinic

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