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Mental Health and Depersonalization Disorder

Depersonalization disorder is marked by periods of feeling disconnected or detached from one's body and thoughts (depersonalization). The disorder is sometimes described as feeling like you are observing yourself from outside your body or like being in a dream. However, people with this disorder do not lose contact with reality; they realize that things are not as they appear. An episode of depersonalization can last anywhere from a few minutes to many years. Depersonalization also might be a symptom of other disorders, including some forms of substance abuse, certain personality disorders, seizure disorders, and certain other brain diseases.

Depersonalization disorder is one of a group of conditions called dissociative disorders. Dissociative disorders are mental illnesses that involve disruptions or breakdowns of memory, consciousness, awareness, identity, and/or perception. When one or more of these functions is disrupted, symptoms can result. These symptoms can interfere with a person's general functioning, including social and work activities and relationships.

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What Are the Symptoms of Depersonalization Disorder?

The primary symptom of depersonalization disorder is a distorted perception of the body. The person might feel like he or she is a robot or in a dream. Some people might fear they are going crazy and might become depressed, anxious, or panicky. For some people, the symptoms are mild and last for just a short time. For others, however, symptoms can be chronic (ongoing) and last or recur for many years, leading to problems with daily functioning or even to disability.

What Causes Depersonalization Disorder?

Little is known about the causes of depersonalization disorder, but biological and environmental factors might play a role. Like other dissociative disorders, depersonalization disorder often is triggered by intense stress or a traumatic event -- such as war, abuse, accidents, disasters, or extreme violence -- that the person has experienced or witnessed.

How Common Is Depersonalization Disorder?

Depersonalization is a common symptom of many psychiatric disorders and often occurs in dangerous situations, such as assaults, accidents, or serious illnesses. Depersonalization as a separate disorder is quite rare.

How Is Depersonalization Disorder Diagnosed?

If symptoms of depersonalization disorder are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical exam. Although there are no lab tests to specifically diagnose dissociative disorders, the doctor might use various diagnostic tests, such as imaging studies and blood tests, to rule out physical illness or medication side effects as the cause of the symptoms.

If no physical illness is found, the person might be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist, health care professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for a dissociative disorder.

How Is Depersonalization Disorder Treated?

Most people with depersonalization disorder who seek treatment are concerned about symptoms such as depression or anxiety, rather than the disorder itself. In many cases, the symptoms will go away over time. Treatment usually is needed only when the disorder is lasting or recurrent, or if the symptoms are particularly distressing to the person.

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