'Reality shifting' where users say they're transported to another life has exploded on TikTok, but former shifters say it harmed their mental health
- Reality shifting has become a popular TikTok trend as people think they can access alternate worlds.
- Experts say it's often harmless but could exacerbate mental health conditions in some people.
- In extreme cases, shifters are encouraged to die in order to permanently change realities.
"We're actually shifting dozens of times in every moment that we're alive, and most of us don't even realize it," says YouTuber Kristeau in a shifting tutorial video with over 1.5 million views. "Every breath we take we're shifting, every time we blink we're shifting."
Kristeau is part of a community of "shifters," or people who believe they can inhabit an alternate universe or reality in their minds. For Kristeau, that means living in a popular anime series called "My Hero Academia." For others, they envision universes beyond our own.
Dr. Eli Somer, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Haifa in Israel, describes it as "the experience of being able to transcend one's physical confines and visit alternate, mostly fictional, universes." His academic paper on shifting was published by the research journal "Current Psychology" in October 2021.
"Shifting" has become increasingly popular on TikTok, where the tags #shifting and #shiftingrealities have 9.1 billion and 2.9 billion views respectively, with videos and entire accounts dedicated to sharing different "methods" and tips on how to shift.
But there has been concern within the community on how shifting can impact people with existing mental health conditions, with various TikTokers and YouTubers claiming shifting negatively impacted their wellbeing.
Insider spoke to former shifters and experts about reality shifting's rising popularity.
Shifters say they are looking for escapism in an increasingly stressful world
Three former shifters told Insider they started shifting as a means of escapism. For 17-year-old Anya Woods, who lives in Manchester, UK, shifting appealed because it gave her "a sense of excitement and opportunities" during the first COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020, while Lupe Ojeda, also 17, told Insider she started shifting because she was "unhappy" with her life.
According to Saul Rosenthal, a practicing psychologist in Boston, shifting can be "a response to the very real stressors of social isolation and pressure brought about by the pandemic."
"It may in part be a way of trying to feel more sense of control in a world that feels more and more dangerous," he added.
An 18-year-old UK-based former shifter we'll refer to as Sarah, as she requested her identity be kept private, told Insider she wanted to shift because she was "extremely depressed and suicidal."
For Sarah, shifting seemed a "perfect" and "safe" means of escapism from her life and mental health issues because "people were saying you could create the perfect reality and live there."
Shifting can fulfill a similar function to mindfulness and meditation
Practices intended to help people transcend reality, such as mindfulness, meditation, hypnosis, or Kabbalah visualization techniques, stretch back centuries.
"Based on all the 'how to shift' videos, shifting is a form of meditation — whether you consider it self-hypnosis or not," Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, said, adding that meditation, mindfulness, and relaxation all have documented positive benefits, even if they involve focusing on a fictional universe.
One key element of shifting is the creation or "scripting" of a dream or desired reality, known as "DRs" on TikTok. DRs can be fictional worlds — like Hogwarts or the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and shifters "script" their lives within them, including their appearance, relationships, and interactions.
There are a number of different ways people say they shift, but they all broadly incorporate the idea of meditation and require the person to be in a quiet location where they are able to concentrate and are unlikely to be disturbed.
One popular system known as the "raven method" involves lying on your front like a starfish while trying to remain as still as possible. Aspiring shifters are told to count up to 100 and visualize exactly what they'll do on their first day in their DR. This process, shifters say, will lead them to "wake up" in their DR.
Mallory Grimste, an adolescent therapist and licensed clinical social worker said, "The idea of imagining or visualizing yourself in a different reality can be a very healthy coping strategy for many."
"Many therapists will often help their clients create their own 'calm, safe space' to visualize when they need to re-regulate difficult emotional responses and experiences," she said.
But reality shifting can become an obsession, former shifters say
According to clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, "The practice of reality shifting is not inherently unhealthy. However, if a person is using it increasingly more and more to escape their present life, concern arises."
Former shifter Woods told Insider she stopped shifting because it became an obsession. She said she "stopped liking things" in day-to-day life because she was constantly preoccupied with her dream reality.
This was also the case for fellow former shifters Ojeda and Sarah, who both told Insider they actively started neglecting and detaching themselves from reality because they truly believed they'd be able to permanently reside in their DR. Sarah told Insider shifting is "kind of like how people describe drugs. The higher the euphoria, the lower the crash."
All three former shifters told Insider that in some ways, shifting made their mental health worse. Ojeda, who has depression, anxiety, and OCD, said she stopped shifting because it made her "delusional." One of these delusions, she said, was the belief that her soulmate lived in her DR, which furthered her desire to shift there.
According to Phillip Reid, a psychology professor at Cardiff University in Wales, reality shifting can lead to people losing touch with reality. "Younger people without a strongly-established sense of self may be at some danger from taking many new identities, as they can get divorced from reality," he said, adding that this could be a "predictor of psychosis."
"Like any other behavior, the more [shifting] dominates, the more it leads to an unbalanced and unhealthy life," Klapow added. "For those at risk of dissociative conditions, such as psychosis, it can potentially make the condition worse."
In a statement to Insider, a TikTok spokesperson said, "The safety and wellbeing of the TikTok community is our top priority. We do not allow content depicting, promoting, normalizing, or glorifying activities that could lead to suicide or self-harm. We also do not permit TikTok community members to share content depicting them partaking in, or encouraging others to partake in, dangerous activities that may lead to serious injury or death."
Some shifters are engaging in the practice of 'respawning,' which in extreme cases can encourage death
The idea of permanently shifting to a dream reality is known as "respawning," and those who believe in the practice typically say it can occur in one of two ways: either by undergoing a physical death, or by leaving a "clone" or "stand in" behind in their current bodies while their soul permanently shifts.
Respawning is endorsed by a small fringe community of shifters. On YouTube, Insider found various videos and playlists that purport to use subliminal techniques which they say can induce a "natural" death like a heart attack and respawning. These videos received between 1,000 and 30,189 views.
Insider also found a number of posts where users appeared to encourage and celebrate death for the purpose of respawning on Amino, a social media platform that allows users to chat within "communities" based on specific interests.
Several comments under respawning YouTube videos feature users saying they can feel "symptoms" such as chest pains, headaches, fatigue, and breathlessness, but Insider found no evidence that watching these videos can cause physical harm.
Dr. Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, a primary care physician in New York, said there is "nothing noted" that can "elicit a physiological response to induce a heart attack."
However, Rosenthal said the people watching these videos may believe the claims, and said it should serve as an indicator that they require psychological support.
"Most belief communities include people who embrace the tenets as absolute truths," he said. "People who are trying to respawn are telling us something about what's wrong with their lives, so much that they are trying to tear it up and start over. I think we should listen to them and help them find what they need, as best they can, in this life."
Neither YouTube nor Amino responded to Insider's requests for comment.Insider