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Psychosis: Symptoms to Look For

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 24, 2020

What Is Psychosis?

Psychosis describes a period of time when a person has lost some degree of contact with reality and is seeing, hearing, and/or believing things that aren’t real. During a period of psychosis (called a psychotic episode), a person may also become very suspicious of others. 

Psychosis is not a mental illness, but a symptom of mental health conditions including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. It’s more common than is normally discussed, and can be very scary and disorienting for the people experiencing it.

Many contributing factors can lead to a psychotic episode. Those factors include:

Signs of Psychosis

Psychosis does not come on suddenly. Instead, a person has gradual changes in their thoughts and how they perceive the world leading up to their first psychotic episode. It’s important to recognize the early signs of psychosis and get it treated as soon as possible. 

There are a range of symptoms of psychosis, including: 

Hallucinations

Hallucinations are seeing, hearing, or feeling things aren’t actually there. A person who is beginning to experience psychosis might hear voices, have strange sensations, or see glimpses of things that don’t exist or aren’t present.

Delusions

Delusions are when someone believes something irrational — and keeps believing even after they’ve been proven wrong. One common delusional belief is that external forces are controlling our thoughts, feelings, or actions. Sometimes people with delusions also think they have special powers, or that they’re God.

Disorganized Thoughts

This symptom is also known as “formal thought disorder,” and it feels like racing or out-of-control thoughts. It can be hard to keep up a conversation with someone whose thoughts are disorganized in this way because they often jumble their words, link unrelated words that sound alike, abruptly change topics, or can’t focus on one thing. 

Decline in Self-Care

Someone experiencing psychosis usually stops keeping themselves as clean or well groomed as before their symptoms began. They may also stop caring about their professional or academic success and let their work quality decline as a result.

Treating Psychosis

Psychosis occurs most often in young people, posing unique challenges for their caretakers and other adults in their lives. One successful treatment approach is building a team of health professionals and specialists to create a personal treatment plan for a psychosis patient. 

Because psychosis can make someone act in ways others find frightening, those with psychosis can end up isolated. Unfortunately, isolation can actually increase symptoms of psychosis. It’s important to prioritize connections to friends, family, and community in a treatment plan for a patient with psychosis. 

Standard treatments for psychosis include:

Medication

There are antipsychotic medications that can help ease the symptoms of psychosis. Some people will need to take antipsychotics for the rest of their lives, but others may gradually reduce their dosage and stop altogether if there is marked improvement. 

Psychotherapy

While they may not be enough to stop psychosis on their own, one-on-one talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, often used for depression and anxiety, have been successful in helping people with psychosis. These therapies are proven to reduce the need for hospital treatment. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

BMJ: “Managing the acute psychotic episode.”

Mind: “Psychosis.”

National Alliance on Mental Illness: “Psychosis.”

National Health Service: “Psychosis.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “What is psychosis?”

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