What Causes Depersonalization and Derealization? Addressing Root Causes and Avoiding Triggers

When someone experiences unbearable trauma, the mind sometimes finds a way to dissociate from that experience. But the symptoms of this self-preservation mechanism can also be terribly distressing. Understanding what causes depersonalization and derealization in this way can open the door to life-changing treatment. With your support and comprehensive clinical treatment, they can learn to manage triggers and heal underlying trauma for real and lasting recovery.

Dissociation is a type of defense mechanism when a person is experiencing something that is too distressing to bear. This phenomenon allows someone to distance themselves from the trauma by breaking their grip on reality in some way. However, it comes at a cost, especially when the dissociation persists or resurfaces after the traumatic event has passed.

Even as a method of self-preservation, dissociation can allow parts of the self to slip through the cracks. For example, when someone has depersonalization disorder, they lose connection with themselves: their body, mind, thoughts, emotions, and sense of identity. With derealization disorder, an individual loses touch with their surroundings—their environment can feel unreal as if they are experiencing it through a movie screen.

Understanding what causes depersonalization and derealization is important for treatment and recovery. If you know someone who may be suffering from one or both of these dissociative disorders, you can help them to become more aware of their triggers, to get connected with the professional help they need, and to feel supported through their recovery journey.

Exploring What Causes Depersonalization and Derealization


When we talk about what causes depersonalization and derealization, the answers are not exactly cut and dried or one hundred percent certain. The causes and triggers will vary from person to person, and the development of this psychological disconnection is complicated. But we can highlight some risk factors that are common among people who develop these disorders:

  • A history of abuse or neglect, which could be physical, emotional, sexual, or other
  • Having experienced or witnessed intense violence or aggression, including (but not limited to) domestic violence and war
  • Having experienced the death or loss of someone close
  • Having a parent with severe mental illness, including substance use disorders
  • A history of major depression, anxiety, and/or panic attacks
  • A history of substance abuse, especially including the following drugs that tend to incite dissociation: marijuana, ketamine, and hallucinogens
  • Avoidant personality traits and behaviors in stressful or uncomfortable situations
  • A history of intense and/or prolonged stress, which could include work-related, financial, relationship, and legal challenges, among many others

While some of the risk factors relate to a possible predisposition to mental illness, most of them focus on one’s exposure to stress and trauma. This is because depersonalization and derealization disorders are generally the mind’s direct response to overwhelming turmoil in the face of unbearable distress. This break from the surrounding reality or one’s experience of it is the mind’s way of escaping without actually going anywhere.

However, some significant problems arise with this coping mechanism can disrupt a person’s life immensely. The symptoms of disconnection that persist can upset and undermine relationships, employment, education, and the range of logistical and personal responsibilities that would reinforce a normal life. And on top of all of this disruption, there are still the original pain and trauma that were never faced and healed because the mind rejected them. In fact, it’s likely that this internal trauma has compounded over time and needs compassionate attention as much now as it ever did.

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How Can You Help a Loved One to Manage Triggers and Restore Their Life?


Do you have a family member or friend who may be suffering from a type of dissociative disorder such as depersonalization or derealization? The first step in the right direction is an accurate diagnosis so they can receive the most appropriate treatment as soon as possible. Regardless of what their psychological imbalance turns out to be or what caused it, they need professional care to guide them through active healing and back to a life of connection and fulfillment.

With this vital clinical support, you can begin to learn more about your loved one’s disorder overall. By better understanding what causes depersonalization and derealization in general and what caused this individual’s dissociation in particular, you can shine a light on some of the triggers that provoke their trauma. Recognizing these reminders that can aggravate their dissociation will help you to foster an environment that is welcoming and secure.

However, while it can be very important to avoid painful retraumatization, simply avoiding the triggers to the end is a reiteration of the dissociative disorder itself. Total avoidance is the nature of your loved one’s present distress. In other words, managing triggers is a positive step when accompanied by professional treatment. Clinicians and therapists can help them to also manage their experience of the trauma and to heal the wounds that may be buried deep within. For someone who suffers from depersonalization or derealization—or both—their best chance of rehabilitation and lasting recovery will come from a comprehensive treatment approach that cares for the whole person, from the inside out.

BrightQuest is a long-term residential treatment program for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned San Diego-area program and how we can help you or your loved one begin the journey toward recovery.