Depersonalization is a mental state in which a person feels detached or disconnected from his or her personal identity or self. This may include the sense that one is “outside” oneself, or is observing one’s own actions, thoughts or body.
A person experiencing depersonalization may feel so detached that he/she feels more like a robot than a human being. However, the person always is aware that this is just a feeling; there is no delusion that one is a lifeless robot or that one has no personal identity. The sense of detachment that characterises the state may result in mood shifts, difficulty thinking, and loss of some sensations – a state that can be described as numbness or sensory anesthesia. Twice as many women as men are treated for depersonalization, which can last from a few seconds to years. Episodes may increase after traumatic events such as exposure to combat, accidents or other forms of violence or stress . Treatment is difficult and the state is often chronic, although it may occur during discrete periods or increase and decrease in intensity over time. Individuals with depersonalization often feel that events and the environment are unreal or strange, a state called derealization
Findings in 2002 indicate that emotional abuse in particular is a strong predictor of depersonalization disorder in adult life, as well as of depersonalization as a symptom in other mental disorders. Analysis of one study of 49 patients diagnosed with depersonalization disorder indicated much higher scores than the control subjects for the total amount of emotional abuse endured and for the maximum severity of this type of abuse. The researchers concluded that emotional abuse has been relatively neglected by psychiatrists compared to other forms of childhood trauma.
It is thought that abuse in childhood or trauma in adult life may account for the distinctive cognitive (knowledge-related) profile of patients with depersonalization disorder. These patients have significant difficulties focusing their attention, with spatial reasoning, and with short-term visual and verbal memory. However, they have intact reality testing. (Reality testing refers to a person’s ability to distinguish between their internal experiences and the objective reality of persons and objects in the outside world.) Otherwise stated, a patient with depersonalization disorder may experience his/her body as unreal, but knows that “feelings aren’t facts”. The DSM-IV-TR specifies intact reality testing as a diagnostic criterion for depersonalization disorder.