Depersonalization Disorder and Drug Abuse

case managerDepersonalization disorder can be simply described as the feeling that you are outside of yourself, watching yourself live your life with no attachment to your body. It can be a deeply disturbing feeling. Many patients describe it as surreal. They say that a depersonalization episode can feel like you are living in a dream or as if you are “losing your mind” or your grasp of reality.

It’s a feeling that almost everyone has at one point in their lives, a feeling that could be brought on by extreme fatigue or illness, but when the episodes recur and have no discernable cause, then the issue could be depersonalization disorder, according to CNN Health. A diagnosis of depersonalization disorder is commonly found among those who have experienced trauma, but it may also be an issue for those who struggle with substance abuse.

In some cases, substance abuse may be used as a form of self-medication for those who struggle with depersonalization disorder. In other cases, substance abuse may come first. When a patient is often high or “crashing” and constantly on the search for their next dose, they can begin to feel detached emotionally and physically, but this is different from an episode of depersonalization experienced by someone living with depersonalization disorder.

No matter what the cause, when it is severe and chronic, depersonalization disorder co-occurring with drug and alcohol abuse can interfere with the ability to relate positively with others, work and support oneself, and function in day-to-day life.

Are these issues causing you or someone you love difficulty? Contact us at Alta Mira and learn more about how you can begin making positive strides forward in your life through comprehensive treatment. Call today.

What Are the Signs of Depersonalization Disorder?

According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the symptoms that can indicate a diagnosis of depersonalization disorder include:

  • Chronic feelings of detachment from your body, parts of your body, or feeling separate from your thoughts
  • Feeling like an observer in your own life
  • A detachment from the choices you make and the things that happen to you each day
  • The feeling that you are an actor in a movie or living in a dream
  • Feeling as if you are not actively making choices in your life, thinking your own thoughts, or speaking of your own accord
  • Being aware that the feelings of detachment you are experiencing are not actual reality (i.e., you are not actually living in a dream world or being controlled by something or someone else)

Some patients also report that they feel as if their limbs are smaller or larger than they actually are or as if they are floating above themselves and watching their life happen to them. Some also report that they feel emotionally distant from close friends and family members.

depersonalizationHow Long Does a Depersonalization Episode Last?

This varies from patient to patient, and depends upon a number of different factors. Some patients report experiencing episodes for a few hours at a time while others say that they last for weeks or even months. Some patients say that they feel as if they live continually in a state of depersonalization that may worsen or get better sporadically.

What Are the Causes?

Like other disorders, including substance abuse and addiction issues, there is no one specific cause of depersonalization disorder. However, some patients have noted a link between depersonalization episodes and trauma, stating that their struggle with the disorder began after a car accident, physical or sexual attack, or another intense, life-threatening event. Additionally, some patients say that they are unable to identify any trigger for their episodes while some report that any feelings of anxiety over experiencing another episode can cause it to happen.

Studies suggest that the disorder may be linked to an imbalance of certain neurotransmitters in the brain.

Is Depersonalization an Issue That Requires Treatment?

The occasional feeling of detachment from your mind, body or life is normal and does not indicate treatment. However, if depersonalization episodes are recurring and you find that the symptoms of the disorder are intruding on your ability to enjoy your life and your relationships with others or function at work and at home, then treatment is the right option.

Who Is at Risk for the Development of the Disorder?

Anyone can develop an issue with depersonalization disorder but the following people may be more likely to experience episodes:

  • Patients who struggle with anxiety, depression, panic disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia and other mental health conditions
  • Patients who have experienced a traumatic or life-threatening event
  • Patients who have witnessed someone else experience a traumatic or life-threatening event
  • Patients who are in their teens or early 20s (the disorder is rare among older adults or young children)

What Is a Depersonalization Disorder Episode Like?

A depersonalization disorder episode is an extremely disturbing experience. Some patients describe it as scary and experience extreme anxiety or panic due to the problem. An episode can:

  • Limit ability to focus
  • Diminish memory
  • Interfere with work
  • Interfere with relationships
  • Interfere with the ability to manage daily tasks

How Do Depersonalization Symptoms Differ From Drug Abuse Effects?

Some drugs – especially hallucinogens and some inhalants – can cause patients to feel as if they are detached from their body or that their thoughts, actions or speech are controlled by someone else, however, being high or drunk is usually very different from experiencing an episode of depersonalization. The University of Wisconsin-Madison says that patients report different effects from the following drugs either during use or when experiencing withdrawal symptoms:

  • Alcohol:  depression, anxiety, paranoia, mood swings, agitation, blackouts, hallucinations, insomnia, suicidal thoughts or tendencies
  • Marijuana: paranoia, anxiety, depression
  • Opiates:  depression, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares
  • Cocaine:  mania, extreme depression, rage, insomnia, paranoia, anxiety
  • Crystal meth:  mania, auditory and visual hallucinations, deep depression, suicidal thoughts, paranoia, panic
  • Hallucinogens:  auditory and visual hallucinations, paranoia, irritability
  • Inhalants:  personality changes, depression, anxiety

What Information Should I Share When I Start Treatment?

When you speak to a medical professional and begin treatment for depersonalization disorder and drug and alcohol abuse, it is recommended that you:

  • Be forthcoming and answer questions openly.
  • Provide information about your current drug use and drug history.
  • Describe the depersonalization episodes you experience.
  • Share how the episodes and the abuse of illicit substances affect your daily life.
  • Share any other mental health symptoms that are causing your problems.
  • List all medications you are currently taking.
  • Provide access to medical and mental health records and report all diagnoses.

It may be necessary for you to undergo extensive evaluation and diagnostic tests to identify the issues that must be addressed during treatment. Being as prepared as possible and open to the suggestions of your therapeutic team will allow you to make significant progress more quickly in recovery. It may be helpful for you to take written notes about the symptoms you would like to share at your intake appointment.

How Do I Know If I Need Treatment?

When you provide the above information with your caregivers in treatment, they will apply the standards of depersonalization diagnosis as they appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the industry standard in evaluation and diagnosis. This manual lists the characteristic experiences of a depersonalization patient. The criteria for diagnosis include:

  • Persistent feelings of detachment from your body, your thoughts or your emotions
  • Feeling as if you are an outside observer in your life
  • Awareness that your feelings of detachment are not “real” but a feeling
  • Depersonalization episodes are disruptive to your life
  • Issues of depersonalization are not caused by another mental health disorder

If you feel that these characteristics describe your experience, depersonalization disorder treatment may be right for you.

How Is Depersonalization Disorder Treated?

recoveryTreatment of depersonalization disorder generally utilizes psychotherapy and medication. Advancements have been made in both areas in recent years and new research consistently supplies cutting-edge methods of treatment that are evidence-based and effective. According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, psychotherapy can help you understand depersonalization disorder better and give you the tools you need to reduce your stress level around your experience of the episodes. Treatment for co-occurring mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression can help the expression of depersonalization disorder symptoms as well.

What Medications Are Used in Treatment?

There are no medications approved for the treatment of depersonalization disorder specifically, but a number of different medications often used in the treatment of anxiety and depression have been shown to be effective in treating the symptoms related to the disorder. These include Prozac, Anafranil and Klonopin, to name a few.

Which Comes First: Depersonalization Disorder or Drug Abuse?

Both cases have been reported. Most often, depersonalization disorder is reported as a separate issue from drug abuse. That is, symptoms or episodes of depersonalization developed first and then drug and alcohol abuse followed often as a part of the process to attempt to deal with anxiety and depression related to the disorder. However, in some cases, patients who are actively abusing drugs and alcohol – or who have for a long period of time – say that they experience symptoms of depersonalization including full-blown episodes. Whether or not these are caused by drug abuse or an unrelated issue is often unknown, and in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry it was reported that no matter which one came first, both disorders are treatable.

Is Drug-Induced Depersonalization Treated Differently Than Depersonalization That Develops Prior to Drug Abuse?

No. A study out of Depersonalization Research Unit and Division of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, London, UK reported that after comparing the experience of depersonalization disorder patients who reported that they first began to experience symptoms after developing a drug abuse problem and the experience of patients who experienced depersonalization symptoms unrelated to drug abuse, they found that there was no statistical difference in the types of treatment that were effective, in their experience in treatment, or their ability to benefit from treatment for the long-term.


How Can I Support a Loved One Diagnosed with Depersonalization Disorder and Drug Abuse or Addiction?

Depersonalization disorder can be scary to hear about from a loved one. Because it is a chronic disorder, many family members struggle with how best to support their loved one as they live with the disorder and go through treatment. If substance abuse is a part of the equation, the stakes are significantly higher.

It’s important to remember that the disorder is not physically harmful or life-threatening. The same cannot be said of drug abuse and addiction. Depersonalization is not the sign of a neurological disorder or of a serious mental illness, but substance abuse can ruin your loved one’s life – or even take it.

It is recommended that family members who would like to help their loved one living with depersonalization and drug addiction do the following:

Family members should:
  • Learn about the nature of depersonalization disorder and about drug addiction.
  • Learn about the different methods of treatment for both issues.
  • Get involved with a support group that is geared toward family members of addicts.
  • Talk to your loved one’s treatment professionals and remain in contact with them regarding the best way to aid your family member’s recovery.
  • Enroll in personal counseling and consider the option of family counseling when your loved one is stabilized in recovery.

Is It Time to Find Out More?

Getting the help you need to move forward and deal with depersonalization disorder and substance abuse starts with a phone call. Our counselors at Alta Mira provide a comprehensive and in-depth evaluation in order to provide an accurate diagnosis and follow up by creating a unique treatment plan that includes a wide range of psychotherapeutic intervention options and medication when necessary.

If you would like to learn more about your options in depersonalization treatment and drug addiction treatment, contact us today at the number listed above for more information.