Reality had slipped away and I was sure I was losing my mind. But, I was only experiencing a new set of symptoms related to my anxiety: derealization.
Surrounded by the familiar things in my bedroom, I feel like I’m in a strange world. Like it’s not real.
The first time I felt it, was when I woke suddenly in the middle of the night. I’ve lived with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Attacks since I was a teenager so being anxious and anxiety’s effect on my body wasn’t anything new, or scary.
It was when I opened my eyes and it felt like I couldn’t rub the milky filter away. When the curtains that covered my closet started to distort and wave like they weren’t able to hold their atoms together. Colors were too vivid, immaterial. The graining of the wood on my armoire, gone, and flat.
I desperately needed something to hold onto, something I could rely on. The familiar is what I craved but my brain made seeing the familiar difficult. I was terrified that I was losing my grip on reality but attributed the experience to a new medication, Zoloft. That was until I felt reality melt away again a few weeks later when I was having one of the biggest panic attacks of my life.
My body was on fire, my heart pounding, I exploded out bed. My son and dog lie beside me, hyper-real, and far too close. My brain felt like it was pushing my skull to escape and I could feel myself staring out of my own eyes desperately trying to see reality through the milky filter that enveloped me.
I thought I was going insane, that all of my traumatic life experiences, accompanied by the threat of COVID-19 had culminated in this one final farewell into complete psychosis, which caused me even more anxiety and led to more panic. It was a devastating cycle.
It was then that I got up and walked to the kitchen for water and ice. Feeling the cold sensation slide down your throat, and biting on an ice cube is known to ease anxiety and bring you back into your body instead of your head. But it didn’t work this time.
An hour later, I lay in bed googling my experience. I learned that derealization is associated with panic disorders and that I wasn’t alone.
Confronting a terrifying realization about anxiety
Derealizaton distorts the outside world; your surroundings appear distorted, blurry, two-dimensional, or artificial. The research reports that up to 66 % of people who experience trauma will have some form of derealization.
Panic attacks aren’t always just a pounding heart and an impending sense of doom. The solution isn’t always to relax and work the steps. Sometimes, it’s to hold onto that glass full of water for dear life or touch anything you know is real and continuously remind yourself that the people and things in your surroundings are familiar. It means trying not to panic even more and wait until the sensation passes.
It’s clear that with the threat of COVID-19 and the world in social isolation that myself and others are experiencing heightened anxiety. I know that this intense, all-encompassing feeling is just my body doing what it knows to do when it’s afraid and that it can mean disconnecting from the world. I know it will be over with time but it doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable and scary.
Anxiety is a lie. It tells you you’re in danger when you’re safe and derealization is just another one of anxiety’s lies that we have to see through in order to maintain our freedom and comfort.