Psychosis: Definition And What To Do Next

Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC

Published 12/28/2020

Psychosis is a word that many people don’t understand well. Movies often confuse the issue further, depicting people with psychosis as being violent. The truth is that violence has nothing to do with the definition of psychosis. Here’s the real meaning of psychosis and what to do if you or someone you care about shows signs of this mental problem.

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What Is Psychosis?

Psychologists often define psychosis as a break with reality. During psychosis, you may hear, see, smell, taste, and feel things that aren’t there. You may have delusional beliefs about yourself, others, and anything in the world around you. Psychosis is a mental problem that is usually a part of some mental disorder. However, it can also be brought on by physical conditions. One way to get a quick assessment to find out if you or someone in your life has psychosis is to take a screening test.

Hallucinations in Psychosis

Hallucinations are a part of psychosis. What is a hallucination, then? The most obvious and the type that people are most familiar with are visual hallucinations. You see things that aren’t really there.

Another commonly recognized form is auditory hallucinations. In these, you hear things that no one else hears. For example, you might believe you hear another person who isn’t with you – either in person or by electronic means. They may talk to you, argue with you, or threaten you. You may also hear other sounds that aren’t there, such as bells ringing or alarms going off.

In addition to visual and auditory hallucinations, someone in a psychotic state might experience touch, taste, or small sensations when their senses couldn’t possibly be picking up that information. One example is if you feel bugs crawling all over your body when there aren’t really any there. Or the food might taste poisoned or spoiled when it isn’t.

Delusions in Psychosis

Delusions are beliefs that can’t possibly be true. People with psychosis sometimes believe they have superpowers. They might think they are a famous historical figure, a well-known celebrity, or even a god.

Psychosis can also prompt beliefs about other people. If you’re in a psychotic state, you might believe that someone is following you or trying to do you harm. You might think someone is poisoning your food or water. You might feel the entire government is working together against you.

Delusions can be alarming to someone with psychosis. If they believe someone is trying to hurt them, of course, they’ll be afraid or angry. But even delusions that seem positive sometimes cause distress. If they believe they have superpowers, they may feel a heavy weight of responsibility for others.

What Is Psychotic Behavior Like?

Psychotic behavior is related to abnormal thoughts, sensations, and beliefs that are a part of psychosis. They’re thinking strange ideas, so their speech is often incoherent or disorganized. They may seem cold and detached or have problems expressing their emotions. At school or work, both their productivity and relationships suffer. Their movements may seem slowed down or strange.

While violence is not a part of the definition of psychosis, a person who has false beliefs that others are trying to hurt them sometimes hurts others. It’s because they think they’re only fighting back or protecting themselves. It’s important to remember that they might behave in dangerous ways. While they do need help, you must be cautious. Yet, people in psychosis are more likely to harm themselves or commit suicide than to hurt someone else.

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Other Symptoms of Psychosis

Psychosis has more symptoms that you might notice. If you have psychosis, your thoughts may seem confusing. You might not care much about taking care of your personal hygiene. You probably don’t feel interested in activities that usually make you happy. And, you might have mood symptoms like depression or mania.

What Is a Psychotic Episode?

A psychotic episode is a specific period of time in which you’re having psychotic symptoms. For some people, that timeframe is very brief. For others, it’s longer. Either way, the episode eventually gets over, and they regain touch with reality.

Conditions with Psychosis

Some people have one brief psychotic episode and never have one again. Others have a physical or mental condition that causes more episodes later on.

Physical Psychosis Triggers

Several medical conditions can bring on psychotic episodes. If the medical problem can be resolved, the psychosis usually goes away. However, if the physical disease can’t be cured, the psychotic symptoms may continue to come back. Here are some of the medical problems that can cause psychosis.

  • Some drugs or excessive alcohol use
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Huntington disease
  • Brain tumors
  • Brain injury
  • Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia
  • HIV and other infections
  • Steroids
  • Stimulant drugs
  • Epilepsy
  • Stroke
  • Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Extreme stress
  • Trauma

Mental Disorders with Psychosis

If you go to a hospital or clinic with psychosis signs, they may begin by ruling out medical conditions. The next step in diagnosis is if you have another mental health problem. The following are some of the conditions in which people often experience psychosis.

Schizophrenia

People with schizophrenia experience psychosis. Their most common symptoms of psychosis are auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions. Often, they hear voices telling them they’re bad or that they must do something.

Symptoms of schizophrenia are separated into positive and negative symptoms. The hallucinations and delusions are positive symptoms because they’re things that do happen. Negative symptoms are things that don’t happen. For instance, a person with schizophrenia may not speak much or have any motivation or social drive. For many people with schizophrenia, psychotic symptoms never completely go away.

Schizoaffective Disorder

Schizoaffective disorder is a mental disorder that has both a mood element and symptoms of schizophrenia. People with the disorder may have psychotic symptoms or not, depending on whether they have a depressive or manic episode or are between episodes.

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Bipolar Disorder

Some, but not all, people with bipolar disorder have psychotic symptoms. They may have psychosis during depression or mania. When their mood levels out, the psychotic symptoms usually go away. During the depression, they might believe someone wants them to hurt themselves. They might have the false belief that they’re powerful, like a superhero or a god during mania. Visual and auditory are common for people with bipolar with psychotic features.

Depression

People with deep depression sometimes have psychosis. Their symptoms usually go along with their depressed mood. For example, they may hear voices telling them they’re not wanted or that they should commit suicide. Hallucinations during depression can be frightening.

Personality Disorders

People with some personality disorders can also have psychosis. For example, people with borderline personality disorder sometimes have symptoms of psychosis.

Postpartum Psychosis

Very rarely, women have postpartum psychosis, usually within two weeks of giving birth. Along with the delusions and hallucinations of psychosis, they have other symptoms. They might also have rapid mood swings, irritability, little need for sleep, and paranoia.

What to Do If Someone Is in A Psychotic State

Suppose you or your family member is experiencing a psychotic state. What do you do? The first thing you need to do is deal with what’s happening right now. Then, you can take a test and seek help if necessary.

Deal withthe Present Moment

While a person is psychotic, but first things first. You have to deal with the present moment before you move on to other steps. Here are some tips to remember.

  • Avoid panic.
  • Remember that they’re probably terrified.
  • Listen without judging.
  • Don’t talk about medications or treatment.
  • Don’t try to diagnose their condition.
  • Speak softly, slowly, and simply.
  • Never threaten them.
  • Avoid talking about the negative repercussions of their psychotic behavior.
  • Encourage them to get help but don’t demand it.
  • Speak as positively as possible.
  • Contact a mental health professional.

Take A Screening Test

Once you’ve dealt with whatever is happening at the moment, you might want to make sure that what happened is really psychosis. If you noticed symptoms in yourself, a screening test could help you make sense of what happened. But what if it’s a loved one who was having psychotic symptoms. In that case, you can suggest they take the screening test. The online test is completely private and confidential, so anyone can take it to get information without risk.

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Seek Help Immediately

If the behavior is dangerous to either the person in psychosis or anyone else, get help in your local community immediately. If you can’t get to a mental health professional or your loved one won’t go with you, call for help from emergency services. Again, immediate help is necessary if there is any danger in the situation. If there isn’t, you might be able to wait for an appointment at a clinic.

Follow Up with Ongoing Treatment

When you get help for a psychotic episode, a doctor or counselor will probably diagnose the disorder behind the psychotic syndrome. Even if you are no longer having symptoms, it’s important to continue your treatment as long as needed.

If you have a medical condition, your doctor may treat you for the physical problem and suggest you see a mental health counselor. If the psychosis stems from a mental disorder, ongoing treatment is usually necessary. Medications can help, and therapy can be extremely beneficial.

Conclusion

Psychosis is a serious mental health condition. If you or a loved one has hallucinations or delusions, have them take a screening test to check their symptoms. Then, seek treatment immediately if you need to, or get into ongoing treatment as soon as possible. Psychosis can be scary and distressful for everyone involved, but treatment can be very helpful.