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by Carol Edwards

This story is part of our blog series called “Stories from the OCD Community.”  Stories from the community are submitted and edited by Toni Palombi. If you are interested in sharing your story you can view submission details at www.iocdf.org/ocd-stories.

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and later depersonalisation. My second diagnosis is a sensation that makes me feel my body is separate from my mind. Before diagnosis, I used to ruminate on doubts and what-ifs about losing my memory or getting early-onset dementia. What I hadn’t realised then is how OCD had latched on to my dissociated experience, the feeling that makes me feel disengaged with myself, others, and the environment. While this strange awareness is a symptom of anxiety, at the time, it reinforced my fear of acquiring dementia.

My doctor explained that stress and anxiety can bring on dissociated states, including forgetfulness. I experienced some stressors at the time of my diagnosis and had become forgetful and confused. By now, such distraction coupled with strange sensations where I felt as though my body was detached from my mind (depersonalisation) was making sense. Also, I realised that having the feeling that I was watching myself in a slow-motion movie (derealisation) was part of the symptoms associated with dissociation.

What did I do? First, let me explain how my imagined possibilities in OCD were focused on faulty reasoning linked to thought-action fusion (TAF). What happens with TAF is that a person thinks as though their obsessive-related fear will be more likely to occur because they had a thought about it, even though deep down they know the idea is irrational. Now add to the experience derealisation and depersonalisation, and you’ll see how TAF is very similar.

For example, my erroneous thinking before being diagnosed with depersonalisation was that the likelihood of developing early onset dementia (due to my forgetfulness and confusion) outweighed the higher possibility that I wouldn’t. This was especially during an intense episode where people and my surroundings seemed more distant and unreal than at other times. Even people I knew looked unfamiliar and their voices sounded unusual, and our conversations which seemed weirdly confusing was all very unsettling.

So even after my doctor gave me sound advice, I still questioned why I couldn’t remember specific things, like what I did the day before, or where I was last week. I started to think that my lack of recall meant my memory was failing, that I’d been wrongly diagnosed; so, I bought a book on dementia. I needed to know one way or the other.

My resolution after reading the book was coming to the conclusion that my dissociated states had become so overwhelming that I’d lost all reasoning to fear — a fear that dragged me into conflict. On the one hand, I believed these unusual sensations meant I was losing my memory, and on the other hand, I knew instinctively that my memory was intact, yet doubted it. OCD had been playing havoc with my mind for too long, intruding relentlessly with, “You need to do more research, buy another book.” I did: I bought books, I Googled information, I went back and forth to my doctor who continued to reassure me, yet all the time I was doing these behaviours, I was reinforcing my obsessional fear.

What did I do next? Doubts or no doubts, I reined myself in and told myself that I had a dissociative condition, with OCD. I took in what I read about dissociative states and learned that the sensations are a mental shift in one’s perception. At the time, my experience of the external world was that people and places seemed unreal, also myself. Nonetheless, I reminded myself that such differences in perception do not change your personality but are a symptom of stress or trauma. Also, given that OCD was involved, I could see how my obsession was exacerbating the problem.

What were my solutions? I visited with my doctor again who, at this point, recommended I do cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure response prevention (ERP), and since I’d trained in CBT for OCD already, I made a strict decision to put this to use. This was agreed with my doctor, and from there, I used self-directed techniques that are very similar to when you challenge your fears in exposure response prevention for OCD. I integrated other ways to cope in triggering situations, too. These included gentle exercise to reduce stress, emotion management, and positive self-affirmations. Simultaneously, I faced my obsessional fear using the ERP method.

For instance, in graded steps, I met with one fear (exposure) at a time, while resisting doing my usual “safety” behaviours (response prevention). One of my panic situations was travelling by train — I had to commute at the time for work. My typical response before ERP was avoidance, so I chose to escape the railway rush hour because it intensified my dissociated states, and instead I shuffled work appointments to fit with bus travel. 

However, with ERP, I learned to cope differently. What I would do is travel by train (exposure) and put into practice my emotion management techniques. When I experienced symptoms of derealisation, I would encourage myself to sit with it, to breathe easy, and to bring in mindfulness. I told myself everything was normal, I just wasn’t experiencing it, and to relax and let the sensation pass (self-affirmation). Mindfulness helped me tune in to all of my five senses and kept me safely in control instead of running away from the strange sensations where my mind and emotions felt separated from my body.

When using my five senses, I became more grounded. I especially found that strong mints (taste) helped with mindful distraction, also holding a fidget toy (touch), counting trees or clouds (sight), occasionally sniffing a handkerchief with a dab of lavender oil (smell) and listening (sound) to white noise on my mobile phone.

When OCD crept in, I would direct my attention on not only embracing the dissociated sensations but also managing the intrusive thoughts with a strategy I made up myself, called the three A’s. These are:

A: Acknowledge the intrusive thoughts and dissociated sensations.

A: Accept they are there.

A: Allow the thoughts to come and go without appraisal or giving into corresponding compulsions, and to lean into associated anxiety until it comes down naturally.

To summarize, mindfulness and positive affirmations helped me to embrace my thoughts and sensations and live more comfortably with these experiences. Since OCD exacerbated the symptoms of dissociation, practicing ERP helped reduce both sets of symptoms, and while I live better with dissociated states, OCD has lost its impact; subsequently, my symptoms are much reduced.

Carol Edwards is a former CBT therapist, specialising in OCD and related disorders. Presently, she writes about OCD and offers online mentoring with educational documents at www.yourocdstudycoach.com. She is also writing a book about “desire” amid aversion in religious, sexual, and harm obsessions.


  • David

    Hi Carol, I loved reading your post! I’m currently going through a mini bout of DP from not tending well to my OCD (too little sleep, too little to eat.). It sounds like your self-treatment is inspired by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. His work has helped me get out of the endless fog DP and the anxiety of OCD. Your post gave me inspiration to get back on my OCD maintenance. I hope you’re doing well!

    • Hi David, first, I apologise for such a late response. I came to get the link for my blog and just saw your message. I did read Jeffrey Shwartz book a few years ago so it’s likely his work has had a big effect on my thinking. I’m so glad to know that my blog gave you inspiration to get back on your OCD maintenance. Since this blog, I hope you’re doing well. I’m doing okay, thank you. I’m keeping busy with my writing, which I love doing!

    • Yassir

      How did you overcome depersonalization

  • Sean

    Wow, this is really close to what I’m experiencing. I’m really concerned about dementia but at time it seems like DR. The stress that it may be dementia can really get to me.

    • Hi Sean, as I just mentioned to David, who also left a reply, I’m sorry for the late reply. I understand how stress can make the problem worse. I find that rational statements can be helpful. I’ve become accustomed to dissociated states by telling myself, for example, ‘Derealisation it is a sensation and it will pass’. Same with memory. Rationally, I knew I couldn’t recall certain things due to stress, but emotionally, I feared it was memory loss. Strengthening the rational belief with CBT strategies helped me squeeze the irrational side of the problem. I hope things are better for you now.

    • Evan

      Very good to read your story. With my, or anyone having OCD, it really beats on you. My mother has vascular dementia. I live with, and watch her, listen to her, etc, and the thoughts just creep into my mind. I am able to fight them off at times, while other times… not so much. My sister and I live with my mom and have to do a lot for her, so it really has stressed us to the max. We both have been through divorces, and my son is ADHD, and is another huge stressor for me. Needless to say, with all of that, and more going on, my already strained anxiety and panic has reached a peak again. I’m soon to be 42, and I know this isn’t something to worry about now. It’s so very hard lately though!

  • Owen Swift

    Hi, this is how i feel, but i get very confused about places that look the same, people and words looking and sounding the same, and often my brain would tell me to say the right words! Its very scary as sometimes i dont know were i am even in my own bedroom, did you struggle with words etc?

    • Hi Owen Swift, I can identify with places looking the same but at the same time unfamiliar. But the sensation is brief, so it passes quickly. I haven’t struggled with words except only that they look wrong, but not where it bothers me. Perhaps, in some situations, where the brain tells you to say the right words, it’s because there is a need for certainty or to FEEL that everything is okay. A therapist who specialises in OCD can help with this type of problem, if it becomes obsessive-compulsive.

  • Shreya

    I feel like i can loose my identity and suddeny take up identity of other person which i know is foolish i constantly remind myself my name i wanna live a like 21 year old girl like i was living earlier before my hocd and tocd started i started to question my own identity because of it a just mere thought came that i have become my bf being a man i started feeling more anxiety … i wanna be normal again plzz help me

    • Jessica Price

      Shreya—Thank you for sharing, and I’m sorry to hear about your struggles. Please contact us at info@iocdf.org so our resource specialist can help you get support.


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