Depersonalization-derealization: Why does everything feel like a dream?


Kevin Mangelschots

Some of us might have gone through a feeling of detachment from our environment, or even from our own physical body. It might have felt like it was surreal and even upsetting. Almost like we were stuck in a dream for lack of better wording.

If you ever experienced this sensation before, then it was most likely a bout of depersonalization-derealization.

It isn’t that uncommon, either. With estimated prevalence rates ranging from 0% to 1.9% amongst the general population.

But it can become a mental disorder that negatively impacts our daily functioning if it occurs naturally, and perseveres or repeats itself.

Why does everything feel like a dream?

Image of a woman dreaming while asleep.

If everything feels like a dream, then it’s most likely the result of suffering from a depersonalization-derealization disorder.

It is a dissociative disorder and a psychiatric condition. People suffering from a bout of depersonalization/derealization frequently, or persistently, experience repeated feelings of observing themselves from outside their own bodies. It’s also a possibility that you have the feeling that your environment isn’t real. In some cases, people might experience both at the same time.

It can be described as a state of detachment from your outer environment.

This is a distressing situation that may cause great anxiety and stress. One that might make it seem like you’re living in a dream.

It’s quite common for people to experience a bout of derealization or depersonalization at some point during their lives. But in most cases, it’s of a passing nature.

Nevertheless, it’s possible that these feelings of detachment keep happening, or never go away entirely. This quite obviously interferes with one’s daily functioning. If that’s the case, then we can safely call it a depersonalization-derealization disorder.

The degree to which the depersonalization-derealization disorder interferes with one’s daily functioning varies. When severe, it can hinder work, relationships with friends and family, and other day-to-day activities.
The main treatment is psychotherapy, which is a form of talk therapy. In extreme, or dangerous cases, medication is also used as a treatment option.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is it called when real life feels like a dream?

When real life feels like a dream is what we call depersonalization and derealization. Is depersonalization disorder serious?

Whether a depersonalization disorder is serious or not depends on a few things.

If it doesn’t interfere with your relationships, work, and ability to function in general, then it’s probably not that serious.

But in some instances, all of those aspects of life are negatively impacted in one way or another. If that’s the case, then it should be taken very seriously. The best course of action would be to include psychotherapy and medication as treatment options.

If it reoccurs or perseveres, then it should be taken seriously.

What can trigger depersonalization?

As we can see, most instances that trigger a derealization disorder are related to trauma in one way or another. It’s also possible that it happens due to the anxiety that these traumas typically cause.

Many more possible triggers exist, so potential causes are not just limited to this particular list.

Does anxiety cause derealization?

The Health Research Funding accounts that anxiety and stress are the primary reasons for derealization.

Luckily, there are things we can do to reduce stress and anxiety.

Women are two times as likely to experience a bout of derealization than men are.

Trauma is one of the most essential causes of bouts of derealization. Around 66 percent of people who have experienced some sort of trauma in the past will go through some sort of derealization.

Fight or flight response

Stress and anxiety activate the fight or flight response, also called the stress response. This in turn releases our stress hormones, which work as stimulants to gear up our body to engage in immediate action.

Needless to say, this changes the way our brain interacts intrinsically. This emergency readiness comes at the cost of potentially creating a sense of derealization.[1]


It’s also possible that frequent, chronic stress causes an inability to recover from said tension, which causes our body to become ‘stuck’ in a state of stress-response readiness. This is called stress-response hyperstimulation. The name’s origin comes from the fact that stress hormones are stimulants, hence the name hyperstimulation.

This can cause our bodies to display symptoms of a fight or flight response. The difference is that hyperstimulation can last a lot longer than an active stress response.

Hyperstimulation can cause cognitive impairments, which can induce feelings of detachment and separation of how we would normally think when our brains are functioning normally.

How do you know if you have derealization?

A woman suffering from an episode of depersonalization/derealization disorder in the mirror.
Depersonalization: She does not recognize herself in the mirror. She thinks she sees a ghost. She does not know what is real and what is not.

A derealization/depersonalization disorder usually occurs in episodes. This means that symptoms will probably come and go depending on whether you’re suffering from a bout of derealization at that point or not.

Most folks who do suffer from an episode report feeling like they’re stuck inside a dream or haze. They describe feeling like they’re physically or emotionally separated from their surrounding environment.

What does a depersonalization episode feel like?

Image of a woman who's sleeping experiencing an out of body experience.

A depersonalization episode feels like you’re disconnected from yourself.

You feel like you’re not in control of your actions, movements, and/or speech. Thus, it can make us perceive like we’re experiencing what’s happening separated from our own physical body.

It can entail a physical and/or emotional indifference of our senses and actions to our surroundings.

Some afflicted folks also describe it as feeling groggy or upset.

Can derealization go away?

A complete recovery is possible and expected for the majority of people.

In most cases, the episode only lasts for a few minutes, just as the extreme anxiety does. Most likely since a depersonalization-derealization disorder is simply a symptom of anxiety. However, in some rare instances, the disorder lasts for many hours, days, weeks, and even months on end before finally resolving.

Nevertheless, while experiencing a bout of derealization, these feelings may sporadically get better or worse. But fortunately, it’s not a permanent health condition.

In some folks, the depersonalization-derealization disorder goes away on its own without any interventions.

Others get rid of the disorder by going to a healthcare professional and by practicing therapy that helps them deal with and/or cope with the triggers more efficiently. Therapy is most effective when it is aimed at solving the underlying causes that trigger the disorder.

Is derealization a mental illness?

Depersonalization/derealization disorder is considered a mental illness when both of the following occur:

  1. It occurs naturally/on its own
  2. It perseveres or repeats itself

How can I stop feeling like I’m dreaming?

Image of a woman's hand holding a card reading, 'mental health treatments'.

  1. Accept your feelings

    Some researchers think that depersonalization may be an adaptive stress response to help you deal with certain stressors in life.

    Thus, it can serve a purpose, such as protecting you from harm and pain. Think of distancing yourself emotionally from the thing(s) that cause you emotional pain and/or anxiety.

    Accepting feelings of anxiety, fatigue, stress, and insecurities might reduce anxiety, and in turn, stress. This is particularly effective since we know that the disorder often comes forth due to chronic stress and anxiety.

  2. Challenge negative, intrusive thoughts

    Challenging negative, intrusive thoughts can help to reduce tension since we’re attempting to get rid of plain wrong thoughts, and rephrasing our thoughts into more positive, and realistic ones.

    Focusing on something else can also help to deal with intrusive thoughts since we’re less likely to give any attention to them, which means they lose their hold and power over us. They’re more likely to naturally go away since we’re not concentrating on that invasive thinking.

  3. Exercise plenty

    Picture of men and women in a gym class exercising.

    Exercising helps to reduce stress, and to keep your body and brain in tip-top shape, which means it’s more effective at preventing physical and mental health issues.

    Working out releases endorphins such as dopamine, which is our happiness hormone, and will reduce cortisol, which is our stress hormone. Thus, exercising helps regulate tension.

  4. Get enough sleep

    Our bodily functions can only operate properly when we get enough sleep, in particular deep, REM sleep. No matter how physically and mentally tough you are, it’s impossible to function in good order when we’re sleep-deprived.

    Most of us know how much easier we are to trigger and agitate when we don’t have a good night’s sleep. That’s why we should make it a point to create a healthy sleeping pattern.

    Go to bed, and wake up at the same time, try to keep your room dark, and only use your bedroom to sleep and engage in sexual activities. Make sure to eliminate electronic devices such as cell phones and laptops.

  5. Relax often

    Relaxing often helps to reduce mental distress. Try to engage in calming activities that you enjoy doing, such as reading, doing yoga, or meditating.

    Practicing deep breathing can be a great way to wind down after a long, hectic day. That’s why you should learn to breathe through your diaphragm instead of through your upper chest like we do when we’re stressed or tense.

  6. Read books

    Image of open books surrounded by closed books lying on a table.

    If you enjoy reading, then it’s a great way to calm your mind.

    Reading books aids in reducing stress by diverting your attention from your invasive, negative thoughts. It also has the added benefit of teaching you new skills or information.

    Reading a book means you have to pay attention to understand it. Concentrating on the meaning and wording probably means you won’t have much time to do anything else, such as fretting about what issues are currently going on in your life.

  7. Listen to music

    Image of a headphone, a guitar, and a sheet of music notes lying on a table.

    They say that music is the gateway to the soul, and this might just be true.

    Specially calming music can assist you in grounding yourself and feeling less anxious in the process. The entry barrier is very low, and most of us naturally enjoy listening to music.

    It’s something you can practice almost anywhere. No matter if it’s from home, in your car, on the bus, or even during your break at work.

  8. Engage with your loved ones

    Consider talking to the people close to you such as your family, partner, and best friends. Especially in times of need when your anxiety or depression is at a high, and you need the emotional support the most.

    It might be hard to do since most of us want to solve our concerns ourselves without having to depend on anyone else. It can also make us feel vulnerable, which is something most of us don’t like since we like to view ourselves as strong, perfect, and incapable of being hurt.

    But that’s irrelevant if you end up harming yourself. Your loved ones are probably more than happy to lend you a helping hand and give you the aid that you require and deserve!

  9. Psychotherapy

    Picture of cognitive behavioral therapy and it's aspects explained.

    Psychotherapy is talk therapy under the careful guidance of a healthcare professional. It can help to deal with the disorder if it’s caused by trauma or distress.

    Other forms of talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy can help you to challenge negative and untrue thoughts.

  10. Educate yourself

    Educating yourself about the mental disorder, how it occurs, and how to treat it, can go a long way towards fixing the issue. At the very least, it can assist in making the symptoms less scary, which can already be a huge step forward to reduce anxiety.

    Reading about other people’s struggles with the disorder can create a feeling of relatedness, which can support us to feel like we’re not alone in the fight.

  11. Quit addictive substances

    Image of someone's hand pouring whiskey in glasses.

    Quitting addictive substances such as alcohol and weed is a great way to reduce/eliminate mental issues. And while those substances can make us feel better at first, they will be devastating and detrimental to our health in the long run.

    Not to mention that addictive substances can often create more mental disorders, and can also be used to mask underlying issues such as depression, and anxiety. This means that substance abuse is frequently an unhealthy coping mechanism in an attempt to deal with the difficulties in life.

What does it mean if it feels like a dream?

Image of a person sitting on a cloud looking at the world from high up in the sky, signifying a dream.

It feels like a dream can mean two things, depending on the interpretation and intention.

  1. Literal interpretation

    Speaking, it means that something feels surreal, as if we’re not truly experiencing it ourselves, or like what’s happening isn’t possible.

    It’s possible that this feeling is the result of going through a bout of depersonalization-deralization disorder.

  2. Figurative interpretation

    Figuratively speaking, ‘like a dream’ conveys that something went very well without any issues.

    For example, changing that lightbulb went like a dream.


Image of the word, “conclusions” written on a black backboard with white chalk.

Suffering from depersonalization and/or derealization can be a surreal, and terrifying experience.

Try to limit stress, anxiety, and trauma as much as possible to reduce the chance of becoming affected, or to treat the condition naturally.

Psychotherapy and medication are both good ways to treat it, yet the most effective way of covering the difficulty is to handle the root of the issue.

Don’t be afraid to seek help from friends, family, and healthcare professionals. They’re in all probability glad to be of service!