Am I turning into a zombie? What's going on upstairs?!
July 17, 2007 12:37 PM   Subscribe

What is this weird sensation I experience? (Have I finally gone off the deep end?)

Every now and then (maybe once every few months, although it happened 2 or 3 days in a row last week), I'll suddenly get this strange sensation where I feel as if I'm partially removed from my actions; as if I'm watching myself. Sort of like I'm in a dream, or as if I were a zombie. Physically I function just fine, and I do have control over myself. It's just a really bizarre sensation.

Before you go there, I don't do drugs and never have. I don't even drink. It's happened every now and then since I was a kid. There doesn't seem to be any stimulus that causes it, although I have a hunch it's related to either a lack of sleep or a lack of sugar / general food intake. (However, I ordinarily sleep fine and eat heartily; it's not as if I'm malnourished. When it happened last week, I was pretty tired and hadn't been eating well, but it wasn't anything major.)

I'm a 21-year-old male, in decent shape. Although I've had problems with anxiety, this phenomenon isn't brought on in anxiety-provoking situations, so I don't think it's relevant. Besides sometimes in jest, I don't consider myself crazy. What the heck is going on with me? (Since it's so hard to describe, I don't have anything to search for; I'm hoping someone will be somewhat familiar with what I'm referring to and help me figure out what's going on.)
posted by fogster to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
You say you've had problems with anxiety. Honestly, having had panic disorder in the past, this sounds very much like the onset of a panic attack. I always used to start with that "disassociated feeling" -- and it would then be a challenge to not turn that into a total meltdown.

Those episodes for me also would not be brought on by any particularly stressful situation, in fact at the time, I found I would have them when I was at my calmest, probably because that was the time whenever my mind would start to get close to wandering to the things that I was truly and terribly anxious about.

You should probably see a doctor and bring it up with them. But at first blush after reading your post, that's what I thought of.
posted by pazazygeek at 12:40 PM on July 17, 2007

Best answer: Derealizatioon is probably the term you're looking for.
posted by wackybrit at 12:41 PM on July 17, 2007

I've had this sensation on and off since I was a kid. It would usually occur if I was "zoning out", lost on my thoughts with my eyes fixated on one spot. I would feel totally disconnected from my body and time, although I never lost control of my actions or experienced memory lost. However, it could take me several moments to snap out of it, which was scary when I was younger. I seldom experience it these days (I'm 34) and when I do it's not with the same intensity.

I've never really worried about it. I suppose I thought of it as some sort of deep mediation or self-hypnosis state.
posted by kimdog at 12:48 PM on July 17, 2007

I too experience this in conjunction with anxiety. Although most of the time I just "snap out of it," sometimes it's unnerving in a very hard-to-control way that brings on a panic response.

The fact that it doesn't happen in anxiety-producing situations only underscores the possibility that you have generalized anxiety disorder related dissociations. That's why this is a disorder, not a healthy anxiety management response. I get anxious. It. Happens. For. No. Reason.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:49 PM on July 17, 2007

Response by poster: Wouldn't I feel anxious / panicked, though, if it were a panic attack? That's never been a problem when this happens.

(And yikes, the answers so far have me worried that this is more serious than I'd thought!)
posted by fogster at 12:50 PM on July 17, 2007

Seconding derealization/depersonalization. It's fairly common, though some folks (including myself) seem to experience it more frequently than others. Weirdly, it will often happen when I've been at the computer too long (something about the staring into space? I'm not sure what triggers it). And yes, it tends to occur more often when I'm tired or otherwise not adequately "fueled" -- with sleep, water, food. In my experience, it's best not to focus on the experience, trying to get a handle on it -- that only intensifies the sensation. Try distracting yourself, looking off into the distance, looking away from whatever you're currently occupied with, and remind yourself that it is just a sensation and will pass. For me, paying attention to it or "observing" the weirdness seems to make it worse. In my experience, it's nothing to worry about. Just a little quirk of human awareness.
posted by tigerbelly at 12:51 PM on July 17, 2007

Have you noticed that they're usually at night? Also does everything look kind of far away when these episodes hit? I remember talking to an ophthalmologist about how your eyes basically get strained from over-use sometimes and get a little screwy with the signals they're sending back to the brain. I wouldn't worry too much about it.
posted by jourman2 at 12:52 PM on July 17, 2007

Also, anecdotally, I am sometimes difficult to distract, or when broken from my concentration, experience disorientation or irritability which can roll over into panic. I figure if it's a spectrum, I'm about on the opposite end from ADD. I put all this under an OCD & Anxiety Disorder umbrella.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:53 PM on July 17, 2007

This also sounds similar to an out-of-body experience.
posted by designbot at 12:57 PM on July 17, 2007

Whenever I this happens to me it means I'm getting a cold. Doesn't always happen when I'm getting a cold, but I've never gotten it outside of that. It happens less frequently as I get older. But then so do colds.
posted by Ookseer at 1:06 PM on July 17, 2007

I've never associated my sensations with panic... and I've never had any type of anxiety disorder. I can't think of any specific trigger other than I was deeply lost in my thoughts... and my eyes were always fixated on something at the onset. And like tigerbelly, it seems to intensify the more I focus on it.
posted by kimdog at 1:07 PM on July 17, 2007

FYI, I get this whenever I'm running a fever; it's usually the first sign that I have one at all, and sends me running for the thermometer. Next time it happens, see if you have a low-grade fever.

Note that I used to get this more powerfully as a child, and some of the experiences were trippy indeed. I still vividly remember some of them.
posted by davejay at 1:19 PM on July 17, 2007

Just to add to the chorus, I sometimes get this sensation when I'm being way too conscious of my appearance, such as spending a lot of time in front of the mirror or looking through a lot of photos of myself. It's somewhat similar to the effect that happens when you say a word so many times it sounds like nonsense, only much freakier; I start to feel this disconnect between my "self" and my outer image, and at times it can backslide into a panicky state. As long as I'm not alone and am able to get the hell outside of my head by interacting with others, it's over pretty quickly.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 1:26 PM on July 17, 2007

When I was in my teens, I would often experience something similar. I felt not only physically removed from my surroundings, but my vision would be as if someone had thrown a thin gauze over me. My hearing would seem somewhat muffled, too. It seemed to coincide with being in the middle of crowds.

There was no overt feeling of panic. Though it did concern me when it happened. Eventually it would wear off. But it could linger for 15 or 20 minutes.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:35 PM on July 17, 2007

Might be some form of seizure. See here under Complex Partial Seizure. I'd check with a doc if they're bothering you.
posted by DarkForest at 1:41 PM on July 17, 2007

I'm pretty sure it's depersonalization/derealization as named above. I experience this too, and frequently. Often once or twice a week, sometimes when driving, sometimes abruptly in the middle of conversation. I've noticed there isn't an obvious and direct correlation between high-anxiety situations and the occurrence of the phenomena, but there's some overlap.

IANAD but I'd advise considering the possibility of benign neurological triggers before leaping onto the G.A.D. bandwagon. There are a lot of these, including, most commonly: lack of sleep, extreme exertion ('exercise high'), dippy blood sugar, fluorescent lighting, strangeness to do with the refresh rate on a tv/monitor, etc., etc., etc. I think there's a cross-over with involuntary self-hypnosis.

Bouts of depersonalization/derealization can be pretty scary if you don't identify them as they're happening. I had a big happening last year in the middle of a job interview. Very suddenly I became aware of my own body like a marionette; like I was controlling a video-game avatar of myself; like I was broadcasting through the mouth of a doppleganger I began to quietly, internally, panic about a perceived lag in my processing/response time. It was only by excusing myself I was able to get a grip on the world and bring things 'back' into focus. Since then I've got a lot better at catching the onset of these experiences, and remedying them with a nap, snack, walk, or (it sounds stupid, but I'll swear by it) a pair of dark sunglasses.
posted by mr. remy at 1:45 PM on July 17, 2007

I too have experienced this since I was a child, although as an adult it doesn't happen with the frequency or intensity it did when I was younger.

It doesn't seem to have any particular cause or happen more often when I'm in a particular emotional or physical state, but as others have mentioned I have noticed that it often occurs when I'm intently focussed on one thing. When I was a child I definitely used to be able to expand the sensation by concentrating on it (but then, I also used to be able to make the walls of a room close in if I stared at them in a certain way).

I've never been particularly bothered by it though - if anything I'd say I enjoy it.
posted by Acarpous at 2:07 PM on July 17, 2007

I began to quietly, internally, panic about a perceived lag in my processing/response time.

It's funny, because I rarely have these sensations now that I'm in my twenties, having participated in more than my fare share of entheogenic rituals - but when I was a child I had these sensations with great regularity. The mind is a very powerful tool, and even if you aren't under the influence of a narcotic agent, certain shifts in your thought processes can precipitate these functions without your input.

This will probably sound ridiculous but I swear by it - once when I was very young I played NetQuake (this is an important distinction here, as QuakeWorld and the way it handled TCP/IP packets would have made this experience impossible) much more seriously than any young lad should play any game. This was over dialup connections, and at times my "ping" or "latency" would be around 300-500MS, which is absolutely ridiculous as far as modern day standards are concerned.

I had adjusted my sense of timing and spacial reality for the benefit of performance in this context, and six hours later I had not moved an inch from my chair. My mother called me for dinner, and I turned to respond - and then it happened. Everything appeared to be so out of synch with my mental processing speed it was as if I was experiencing this network lag as if it had any basis in my perception of reality, as if it was the gateway through which all of my actions must be routed. This sensation slowly faded away after about ten minutes, which seemed like an eternity...

I'm simply amazed that others have perceived similar sensations, especially considering the lack of cognitive priming as in my earlier example.

The last time this happened I was sitting on a couch about a few months ago and my perception of time began to rubber band, I thought I had accidentally dosed, my panic reflex really snapped me out of it. Now that I think about it, at the time I was intensely concerned with visualizing an abstract system I was hoping to apply to a certain workflow when I realized things were feeling a little fuzzy.
posted by prostyle at 2:24 PM on July 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I love that you can come to Ask Metafilter practically freaking out about some quirk of yours, and come away feeling feeling totally normal, if not mundane.

I, too, sometimes feel this sensation. I'm especially prone to it when I'm feverish, as others have mentioned. But it can happen whenever I "zone out" and fixate mentally on something. It happened once or twice while I was taking calls at a call-centre job, and that was a weird experience... It felt like a part of me was disconnected from the conversation process, listening to the call without being aware of what I would say next. So hard to describe, but quite as though I was observing myself.
posted by chudmonkey at 2:44 PM on July 17, 2007

It might interest you to know that I have this feeling all the time (I usually explain to close people that "my life is like watching a movie"). I still feel feelings strongly, and have otherwise normal experiences and relationships, but the world just isn't "there" fully. It started about 3 years ago (early 20s) when I started going through a highly stressful period in my life, and with some major changes in direction and location it's only now at the very, very beginning of abating.

My guess right now is that it was related to a process of repressing strong feelings of anger and sadness (doesn't sound like that's the case for you), I am also a very thoughtful person so it's easy for me to step outside myself (perhaps this is the case for you). Gets a little better when I'm well rested or have strong feelings of any type that are expressed, gets worse when I am stressed out or stare at a computer screen for too long. Therapy was a help, but it doesn't really interfere with my life, just my experience of it, and it looks like it just takes time to resolve itself.

Interestingly, Matthew Perry is starring (will star?) in a movie about this general mode of living, "Numb". According to the Wikipedia article, his character has "depersonalization disorder", which "often begins in the late teens or early twenties and usually resolves itself by age 30".
posted by thumpasor at 3:46 PM on July 17, 2007

echoing all the above. The zone-out periods happened more when I was younger but they've always been welcome interludes of zazen-like instant disconnection of mind from environment.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 3:51 PM on July 17, 2007

Best answer: I get these all the time when I don't sleep or eat enough. Restoring either (or both) makes me feel normal again. I wouldn't worry about it. Makes it easier to go on a spirit quest, I bet.
posted by Deathalicious at 4:07 PM on July 17, 2007

Best answer: Yeah, I get this occasionally.

My pet theory is it's simply a small perceptual change. I can actually put myself in a state of depersonalization at will.

It it lasts more than a little while I'd check with a doc. Otherwise I don't think it is anything to worry about.
posted by konolia at 6:45 PM on July 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Probably a seizure. Happens to me mostly when I'm sleep deprived. Here's the way I described it when I asked this.
posted by Crotalus at 8:30 PM on July 17, 2007

I can do it too, konolia. *zones out at konolia*
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 8:37 PM on July 17, 2007

Best answer: The only serious symptom I would regard would be if these states of derealization are accompanied by an unquenchable appetite for brains.
posted by trim17 at 12:40 AM on July 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Wiki: "Depersonalization is the third most common psychological experience, after feelings of anxiety and feelings of depression"

I get this a fair bit when I'm stressed; low blood sugar, fatigue, depressive episodes, or even just being in an unfamiliar situation can set it off.

I find the same situations also trigger things like déjà/jamais vu, rapid mood changes and even the odd hallucination, which might support the hypothesis that it's to do with temporal lobe seizures, but it's not really something to worry too much about unless it's happening a lot.

(My screening for temporal lobe epilepsy was inconclusive; "slight atrophy of the hippocampus on the right side")
posted by Freaky at 1:45 AM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

This happens to me too, and part of me wants to suggest going to a doctor, but if you're like me each one will see it as something through their own lens: the neurologist might think of a petit mal, the cardiologist notes the low blood pressure and speculates that may be causing the feeling, and the psychologist thinks of it as derealization or depersonalization. So it might be pointless. I for one have never had any sort of medical test be able to explain it.

I am sometimes difficult to distract[.]... I figure if it's a spectrum, I'm about on the opposite end from ADD.

This is more the way I like to think about it now. Incidentally, certain forms of therapy actually value this sort of state as a temporary solution to a temporary problem, if you can get it under your conscious control. Who knows, maybe the key to dealing with your anxiety just revealed itself to you.
posted by RobotHeart at 11:39 AM on July 18, 2007

Yes, I have had this occasionally. In my case it seemed to be associated with, probably in some way caused by, stiffness in the muscles and ligaments in my neck and upper back. Quite how these were connected I never quite worked out; but after going to a physiotherapist for treatment for the neck problem (consisting of a mixture of manipulation, learning some stretching exercises, and learning which postures cause the stiffness) I now rarely get these episodes.
posted by Jabberwocky at 4:02 PM on July 18, 2007

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