Cannabis triggered my derealisation disorder

Doing weed is meant to help you relax, but sometimes it can do exactly the opposite. Stewart was 18 when he first started smoking skunk. He tells The Mix about his experience of derealisation and how it triggered his anxiety disorder.

True Stories

A young man is standing in front of a window. He looks detached. He suffers from derealisation. This is a close-up image.

My experience of derealisation disorder

The first time I experienced derealisation was the most frightened I’ve ever been in my life. It happened during my first year at uni after smoking some very strong skunk. I was fine at first; I remember laughing with my friends, then suddenly I was having a weed panic attack and everything became confused. It felt as if my soul had drifted out of my body.

I knew I was still alive, but I didn’t feel like I was sharing the same reality as everyone else. The way I felt didn’t match what I was seeing. I was sure that I had done irreversible damage to my brain. In the following days and months friends persuaded me that I would feel normal again, but three months passed and the derealisation symptoms were getting stronger and stranger. My relationships and work started to suffer.

Seeking help for my derealisation symptoms 

It was Christmas and I was at home with my family. I was in the bath and the feeling of being detached  were so intense that I believed I might disappear altogether. My emotions felt completely different from my rational observations. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t because, as I found out later, a common experience with my condition is the inhibition of ’emotional colouring’ and depth. That night I finally broke and told my parents what I was going through. They were shocked and angry at first, but supported me hugely over the coming years.

Over the next two years I tried desperately to find out what was happening to me. First I saw a counsellor, but he just seemed baffled by my problems. Next I asked my doctor (GP) to refer me to a specialist in brain damage and had a brain scan but the results came back as normal. Meanwhile, I was trying deep tissue massage, mineral deficiency testing, hypnotherapy and cranial osteopathy, but none of it worked. I felt so helpless; I was certain that I would never feel right again.

Struggling to be understood 

In my second year, life got even harder. It was difficult to leave the house because my symptoms were made worse by busy or new situations. I would rarely go out to pubs or clubs. My close friends tried to understand what I was going through, but they couldn’t. I had to turn down evenings out, holidays and time bonding with them. The loss of my sense of humour and mental agility made me feel like I was boring to be around and a burden to everyone.

When I went home to see my parents I spent a lot of time lying in my room in the dark. My parents found it really hard to see their son wasting his youth and engaging so little with life.


Recovery began in as extreme a way as my condition had started. The stress, confusion and misery finally culminated in an almighty, spiralling panic attack; one of the worst episodes of depersonalisation I’d had. I rang for an emergency GP to visit my home. With his consent, I admitted myself into a psychiatric unit for monitoring. I arrived at the hospital at 2am, was checked in and given heavy doses of valium.

When I saw the head psychiatric doctor three days later, he explained to me that in his opinion I had precipitated an anxiety/stress disorder with the use of a powerful form of marijuana. The strange feelings of disassociation and related symptoms were a result of anxiety levels reaching such high levels that my mind was unable to cope with all the adrenaline and cut itself off from reality, causing what is known as derealisation disorder and depersonalisation disorder. These are both a type of dissociative disorders where the person feels detached from their body and their surroundings. 

Getting a diagnosis

So, finally I realised that I didn’t have a personality disorder or anything like that, my derealisation symptoms were simply the product of a traumatic event. He put me on a drug for the anxiety and over a period of about two months I gradually returned to my former self. My sense of humour and mental faculties came back and I began to reconnect with my emotions.

Five years on and I’m still on meds. I only experience derealisation and anxiety during periods of stress or change now, and I’m learning to cope with the disorder much better. I find that keeping busy and spending time with people you trust is a great distraction. As long as you don’t indulge your depression or anxiety and have a strong support network, anyone with psychiatric disorders can live a full life.

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By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 27-Aug-2021