Paramedic

How Do First Responders Cope With Depersonalization?

Published on January 29, 2021 by First Responder Wellness

Do you have a vague feeling of being detached from your reality, like you’re dreaming, or that you’re viewing the world from a third-person perspective? Do the words that come out of your mouth not feel like your own? Does your reflection seem like a stranger? If so, these may be signs you are experiencing depersonalization. These symptoms can be particularly frightening to experience, but understanding what this disorder is, and accepting it, can help you surrender to the feelings in order to move past them. 

First responders who have these symptoms may find it distressing as it is also associated with a feeling of lack of control over your life and what happens. Depersonalization may arise from experiencing extremely stressful situations. For some people, extreme stress may induce the “fight” or “flight” response. Yet, for others, this heightened arousal can lead to dissociation as a means to emotionally distance and protect oneself from a perceived life-threatening situation. When this happens, your mind shuts down to prevent it from becoming too overwhelmed. Being in this state may make us feel disconnected from ourselves, our environment, and the people around us. 

Symptoms

  • Feeling like an outside observer to your thoughts, feelings, body, or parts of your body
  • Feeling like you’re not in control of your speech or movements
  • Emotional or physical numbness of your senses or responses to the world around you
  • A sense that your memories lack emotion and that they may or may not be your own memories

A recent study titled, “Dissociative symptoms mediate the relation between PTSD symptoms and functional impairment in a sample of military members, veterans, and first responders with PTSD” states that depersonalization is a subtype of post-traumatic stress (PTS), and around 15-30% of individuals with PTS experience significant symptoms of depersonalization (“feeling as though one is separated from one’s own body”) and derealization (“feeling as though things around you are strange or unfamiliar.”) 

Due to the stressful nature of a first responder’s job, they are exposed to more of these traumatic situations that cause “fight” or “flight” reactions. The same study also reported that “Among military members and veterans, recent studies indicate that 8%–32% of veterans and active-duty military personnel meet criteria for the dissociative subtype.” Within military and veteran samples and other trauma-exposed individuals, PTS combined with depersonalization has been associated with more severe PTS symptoms, depressive symptoms, and alcohol abuse symptoms. 

Acceptance

One of the best ways to combat depersonalization is not to combat it at all but rather to accept and surrender to these feelings. Understanding that this is a mental process your brain ultimately did to protect itself will help you move past it. 

When you are living with depersonalization, you may feel devoid of life’s pleasures, and the love and affection you previously felt might seem to fade. This can cause you to worry that it will be permanent, but this is not the case. When you try to fight the symptoms, you remain in that heightened state of stress—which is precisely what your mind was protecting you from in the first place—and can bring about more depersonalization. This can cause you to be stuck in a feedback loop of stress. In order to break this cycle, it is important to stop fighting it. It may be natural to think that if you don’t fight the feelings, they will come back stronger. However, acceptance of depersonalization does not lead to stress in the same way that fighting it does.

Leading a Balanced Life

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one way to reduce stress levels that may be causing depersonalization is to live a balanced life. When feeling disconnected from yourself and your life, it can be easy to withdraw further into that feeling and isolate yourself. However, being active, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and sticking to a routine, can help you feel more like yourself again. To feel normal again, it can help to do normal things. Staying in your room all day because you feel depersonalized may only cause you to feel more detached.

Healing from depersonalization may be a slow process, as the mind and body take time to recover. Changing your perspective on how you view depersonalization from an enemy to something your mind did to protect you can help reduce stress levels. Once stress levels decrease, inner balance can be re-established, making you feel more like yourself again.   

As first responders, you are the first ones on the scene and often arrive at incredibly stressful situations. The stress of these events doesn’t usually leave right after you leave the job either. Experiencing high levels of anxiety, stress, or trauma without having resources for support or implementing healthy coping strategies can cause mental health problems. Depersonalization is one way in which an individual’s body can react to protect the mind and body from overwhelming amounts of anxiety. If this occurs, this may cause you to feel detached and distant. Although these symptoms can be frightening to experience, there is help. At First Responder Wellness, we are here to help those in the first responder community who may be suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues. If you are feeling any of the symptoms of depersonalization, or are experiencing any other mental health concerns, call us at (888) 743-0490.