You’ve been under severe anxiety all day. Your obsessions are whirring a mile a minute, and your body is so wired that you can almost feel your cells trembling. Suddenly, you feel a sense of detachment come over you. It feels as though you are outside your body and are looking back at yourself. This is the depersonalization of OCD.
While milder forms of depersonalization can offer a sense of relief, more severe forms of depersonalization or derealization (DP/DR) can cause a lot of distress.
In this article, we’ll talk about how depersonalization and OCD interact with each other, and how Scripture gives you permission to do (most) of what your therapist may suggest.
Causes of Depersonalization in OCD
Depersonalization can have multiple causes.
Psychoactive substances are a classic cause for depersonalization episodes. Eating the wrong mushrooms or smoking a bit too much of that mystery weed can suddenly make you feel separated from reality. You feel like you’re out of your body, floating, or can’t come back to earth.
I restrict my mushroom-eating to the kind I find in the grocery store, so I have never experienced this kind of hallucinogenic depersonalization.
And most of my readership on this blog — being, after all, highly conscientious and scrupulous people — are probably not the type to have illegal substances hidden in secret compartments in their SUV consoles.
So let’s note that hallucinogenic or psychoactive substances can be one cause for depersonalization, but it’s not the only factor.
Others experience episodes of depersonalization in response to severe, ongoing stress or outright trauma.
Trauma-based depersonalization can be an attempt to separate one’s self from a negative, painful, or uncontrollable situation. Some may intentionally depersonalize as a way to self-soothe (I have done this since childhood during times of great stress). Others experience depersonalization as something that happens “to” them unwillingly, and find it very distressing.
Depersonalization and OCD are commonly experienced together. It may be in part because of the intense, chronic stress of OCD. After 420 hours of nonstop obsession, depersonalization can be the brain’s attempt to shut down and take a siesta for a while.
What Can We Do About Depersonalization and OCD?
When you go to talk to your therapist about your depersonalization episodes, there’s probably one main concept he or she will suggest: learn to stop seeing your depersonalization as threatening.
That’s right, depersonalization is not dangerous.
It’s really nothing more than your brain’s safety valve. When things get too stressful, we dissociate. We disconnect.
But for someone with religious OCD, we may wonder if it is truly ok or “Biblical” to treat this experience as non-threatening. Because of our penchant for religious obsessions, we often give the depersonalization a spiritual meaning, such as:
- Having committed the unpardonable sin and losing one’s “soul”
- Being possessed by the devil
- Being punished for one’s sins
In fact, none of these are correct. Episodes of depersonalization are simply the brain’s safest reaction to intense, chronic stress.
(Swamy is a life coach who specializes in depersonalization and derealization. He has a whole online course on this topic. I am not affiliated with him, but I did find his blog articles and videos insightful. You may wish to check out his work.)
Does the Bible Say Anything About Depersonalization?
Paul boasts of a man he once knew 14 years prior to writing 2 Corinthians. God had bestowed upon this unnamed man the incredible privilege of visiting heaven. In describing the experience of being “caught up” to heaven, Paul writes, “whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows” (2 Corinthians 12:3).
For Paul, having an out-of-body experience was neither a good thing or a bad thing. It was something he did not know and could not speculate upon in this man’s experience.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul includes a lengthier passage speaking of our yearning to exchange our mortal bodies and be clothed with glory.
For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, 3 if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. 4 For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. 7 For we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.2 Corinthians 5:1-8
It’s good for us to care for our mortal bodies. Let’s eat healthy and exercise and take daily showers. These bodies are the “temple of the Holy Spirit,” but…we know they are temporary.
One day, God will clothe us with immortality. Thus, Paul could make the statement that we are “well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”
These sickly, aching, cancer-ridden, pimple-covered bodies won’t be passing through the pearly gates. We’ll be fully restored. So at some point, we’ll need to be comfortable with the idea of a very different bodily reality.
If you feel separated from your body now due to chronic or prolonged stress, try not to view it as a dangerous thing. If you get those DP/DR feelings of “floating” above reality and looking down on yourself, try to think of it as a preview of what it will be like when we ascend in the skies at the second coming of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
How I Handle Depersonalization and OCD
Some people with DP/DR find it very distressing. I was a bit surprised as I heard intense fears about these bizarre out-of-body or derealization episodes.
Intuitively, I’ve always known it’s just the brain’s shutdown mechanism. In fact, when I’m under considerable stress, I sometimes seek to intentionally dissociate and it gives me a feeling of calmness and control. (I’m saying all this, by the way, to help you see that there are alternate interpretations to this event. You do not need to interpret your DP/DR as a signal that you’ve just lost your soul).
What this looks like for me is simply a detachment from myself. I look down on myself — lying in bed, kneeling in prayer, or washing dishes. In my state of detachment, I can see myself more objectively. I become my own mother figure. This poor child, I think as I look down on the frazzled figure on her knees, She’s so stressed. No need to take seriously any of her obsessions right now. She’ll be alright.
Sometimes, my depersonalization episodes are more elaborate and colorful, like daydreaming. Imagining myself planting seeds in a sunny garden or trekking through a jungle fully releases me from having to figure out my latest faith-validity question.
And when my mind has calmed down sufficiently, I come back to center and carry on with life.
There’s nothing to fear from those moments when your body, mind, and reality seem to be divorced from each other.
Depersonalization and OCD can feel like a troubling mix — especially when we interpret our DP/DR episodes to have a spiritual meaning. But eventually we need to come to the point of recognizing that “reality” and our physical bodies will be change one day, anyways. When Christ returns to make the earth and our bodies new, we’ll doubtless go through a period of disconnect! So why should we worry about if we get a bit of disconnect now?
DP/DR with your OCD is harmless. The only harmful thing about it is your propensity to worry about it. THIS is what causes your distress. When we learn to view it as nonthreatening, we can begin to appreciate our incredible brains and the hard work they do to keep us safe and sane.
So the next time you find yourself “outside” your body looking in, go ahead and say thanks to your brain. It’s giving you the thing you need most: a quiet moment to disconnect and calm down.
Best wishes on the journey,