Psychosis | Signs and Symptoms | MedStar Health

People may think of psychosis as a break from reality, and in many ways it is. Individuals experiencing psychosis may be unable to distinguish reality from perception. A person may see or hear things others cannot. They may also have strange and persistent thoughts, behaviors, or emotions. While everyone’s experiences are different, most people describe psychosis as frightening and confusing.

Psychosis most commonly presents as a symptom of schizophrenia, but it may also co-occur with bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or substance use disorders.

What are the signs and symptoms of psychosis?

The symptoms of psychosis rarely come suddenly. In general, a person experiences gradual changes in their thoughts and perceptions but may not understand what’s going on. Often, the first symptoms will present during the teen or young adult years. Sometimes early warning signs can be difficult to distinguish from typical teen or young adult behavior. While such signs should not be cause for alarm, consult your doctor if you are concerned.

Families are often the first to see early signs of psychosis. It’s important to address the issue and encourage seeking treatment. A person’s willingness to accept help is often complicated by delusions, fear, stigma, and feeling unsettled. These situations can be extremely difficult, but it’s important to get help quickly. Early treatment provides the best results slowing, stopping, and possibly reversing the effects of psychosis.

It’s important to remember that you know when your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are diverting from your normal. Don’t ignore those signs, especially if they’re affecting your daily function, career, academic performance, relationships, or social engagements and responsibilities.

Early warning signs include the following:

  • A worrisome drop in grades or job performance

  • Trouble thinking clearly or concentrating

  • Suspiciousness or uneasiness with others

  • A decline in self-care or personal hygiene

  • Spending a lot more time alone than usual

  • Strong, inappropriate emotions or having no feelings at all

  • Hearing, seeing, or believing things that others don’t

  • Persistent, unusual thoughts or beliefs that can’t be set aside regardless of what others believe

While psychosis includes a range of symptoms, typically people will experience either or both hallucinations and delusions.

What are hallucinations?

Hallucinations include seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there. People experiencing hallucinations truly believe their perception is real, in spite of contrary evidence from those around them. Hallucinations may include hearing voices, experiencing strange sensations, inexplicable feelings, and seeing glimpses of objects or people that are not there.

What are delusions?

Delusions are strong and fixed beliefs that are not consistent with the person’s culture and are unlikely to be true. They may seem irrational to others. Delusions include believing external forces are controlling your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and believing that trivial remarks, events, or objects have personal meaning or signification. Delusions can make an individual feel extremely paranoid or fearful. People may also believe they have special powers, are on a special mission, or even that they are God.

What are the risk factors for psychosis?

Risk factors for psychosis are varied and include both genetic and environmental factors:

  • Genetics: A family history of psychosis or mental illness can play a role in developing psychosis.

  • Trauma: A traumatic event, such as a death, war, or sexual assault can trigger a psychotic episode. The type of trauma and a person’s age affects whether a traumatic event will result in psychosis.

  • Substance use: The use of marijuana, LSD, amphetamines, and other substances can increase the risk of psychosis in people who are already vulnerable.

  • Physical illness or injury: Traumatic brain injuries, brain tumors, strokes, HIV, and some brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and dementia can sometimes cause psychosis.

  • Behavioral health conditions: Sometimes psychosis is related to a condition like schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, or depression.

What are the treatments for psychosis?

Treatment for psychosis involves a comprehensive, multi-modal approach. Early diagnosis and treatment can be life changing and may reduce, or even reverse, the effects of psychosis.

A behavioral health specialist will perform a comprehensive physical, neurological, and psychological evaluation to determine if an illness is involved and discuss the next steps. If psychosis is a symptom of a mental or behavioral health condition, early action and treatment will help keep your life on track.

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