What Is Schizophrenia: Signs, Symptoms, And How To Cope

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

Published 12/10/2020

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), schizophrenia affects 20 million people globally. The chronic condition affects a person's emotions, perceptions, and personal behaviors. It may affect a person's ability to work and learn, with some facing increased health risks. Stigma with schizophrenia is common, along with human rights violations and discrimination against people with the disorder. It is treatable with psychosocial and medication options and management strategies, including individual and group support services.

What is Schizophrenia?

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Schizophrenia is a chronic disorder that affects the brain and how a person perceives reality or the world around them.  It involves a person's behaviors, ability to function, manage emotions, and think clearly. How they view reality may be different from others. A person may say things that don't make sense. Some may think someone is out to hurt them when there isn't. They may feel like someone is stalking them when that's not true.

A person with this disorder may have an intense paranoia level that affects how they live their lives and how they communicate with others. Sometimes it leads to engaging in unhealthy behaviors like substance abuse or self-harm to help themselves. People with this disorder may feel uncomfortable around others and withdrawal socially due to fear or confusion. They may suffer from other mental health concerns such as depression or experience psychotic episodes while being at an increased risk of self-harm.

People with the disorder improve over time with the right treatment plan. A person may have episodes where they experience changes in their mood and perception of reality. Periods of remission are possible with symptom management, including self-help strategies, therapy, medication, and social support. These aspects also play a crucial role in helping people with the disorder lead independent, healthy lives.

Myths vs. Facts: What People May Not Understand

One misconception about schizophrenia is that someone who lives with the disorder has more than one personality. This isn’t true. They are ‘split’ from reality because they perceive it differently than others. People with schizophrenia have a common condition that is treatable with proper support.

Another common misconception about schizophrenia is that people who have it are dangerous or violent. People with schizophrenia may have thoughts, delusions, or hallucinations that have them believe they are under attack, being watched, or may be harmed, and this can lead to behaviors that may be perceived as violent. Statistically anyone with mental illness of any kind is more likely to be a victim of violent crime than to perpetrate one.

People may also assume that schizophrenia can’t be helped, but this is false. There are many medications, therapy interventions, and other forms of treatment available. Overall, many misconceptions about individuals who are schizophrenic are due to not knowing or understanding the facts behind a diagnosis. Most people with the illness see their symptoms improve when following their treatment plans to manage their symptoms.

Does It Appear with Warning Signs?

Many who ask what is schizophrenia may wonder if there are red flags to recognize if they suspect the disorder. A person may have the disorder with symptoms appearing suddenly. Usually, the onset is gradual, but how a person functions may come with warning signs before they have an emotional episode. People that know the individual well, such as friends and family, may recognize something is wrong but not know what it is.

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Early signs may include withdrawal or isolation from others. A person may be reclusive, emotionless, and unmotivated to do things. Their level of engagement in regular activities at work, school, and home decreases or deteriorates. They may say things that sound strange, and they may not take care of themselves or their appearance as they used to. They look at life with indifference and abandon the things that they used to enjoy. Here are other early warning signs to know:

  • Symptoms of depression
  • Lack of personal hygiene
  • Unable to concentrate or lack memory
  • Uses words strangely or makes irrational or odd remarks
  • Inability to express emotions such as lack of crying or laughing
  • Acts suspicious or hostile toward others
  • Reacts to criticism with extreme emotion

When these signs occur, it may raise concerns. Keep in mind, it may not be signs of this disorder but could signal something else. If unusual behavior makes it challenging to complete daily tasks, consider seeking advice from a medical professional.

What are the Symptoms?

The condition, defined as a chronic disorder or mental illness, affects how a person perceives things with distortions in how they think, feel, and express behavior. While warning signs may serve as a few symptoms, the following provides additional insight on types of symptoms experienced to give an idea of how a person with the disorder changes over time:

  • Many with this disorder have types of delusions that are often not true. They are ideas without logic or fantasies. A person may believe someone is out to get them, they are someone famous, or an outside force controls them.

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  • Hallucinations. Actions or perceptions that occur in the mind. They may involve all five senses but talking, and hearing is most common. A person may think someone is talking to them, but it may just be their conscience or inner voice. Some hallucinations occur when a person is by themselves. It may include a familiar voice but can be abusive or critical.
  • Troubled speech. Some struggle with maintaining clear thoughts and speaking clearly. Sometimes a person may answer a question with details that have nothing to do with the topic. Others speak incoherently or say things that don't make sense logically. One could use words that make no sense to others but themselves or repeat the same thing repeatedly.
  • Behavioral changes. A person may express disorganized behavior patterns. Some behaviors seem bizarre, lack impulse control, or include emotional responses deemed inappropriate or sudden.
  • Lack of expected behaviors. A person may not express emotion physically, make eye contact, or talk with a flat voice or monotone. They lack excitement or enthusiasm. They may not share the interests of others around them and socially withdrawal. A person may not be able to converse with others due to difficulties with speech.

What Causes It?

The causes of this disorder are unknown, but some believe that a combination of environmental factors and genetics could contribute to its development. Many individuals considered schizophrenic may not have a family history, although it is known to run in families. A person may have a genetic profile in relation to the disorder but never develop the condition itself.

Elements related to the environment may also play a role in the development of the disorder. Some studies suggest certain environmental conditions make a person vulnerable or may act as a trigger. Some researchers believe situations surrounding late-term pregnancy, birth complications, and abuse experienced as children could also be potential causes. These situations may induce stress during crucial physical development times that could influence the disorder's development later in life.

Chemistry in the brain is another possible cause behind the development of the condition. Studies are ongoing to understand how abnormal structure may contribute to development, but it is not believed that a specific part of the brain experiencing problems results in the disorder.

What Are Effective Treatments?

The right treatment options address related symptoms and help people live fulfilling lives. In some cases, people can become free of symptoms and regain living in everyday life. It is crucial to get help for symptoms when they appear. Avoid paying attention to the stigma that surrounds the disorder. People learn how to manage their symptoms effectively, including:

  • Many options available help reduce or prevent symptoms related to disordered thinking, hallucination, paranoia, and delusions. It may take patience to know the best dosage and the right drug to take to produce positive results.

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  • Working with a therapist may help with other symptoms like anxiety. People can also learn skills to improve their communication with others and address issues related to relationships. Individual and group therapy sessions have been useful while learning how others overcame their challenges.

Treatment strategies will take time to implement and may require readjustments. Recovery and managing symptoms require a long-term commitment. Even when you feel better, you need to continue your treatment accordingly. As your symptoms improve, medication adjustments by your doctor will be made. Any concerns about your treatment plan should be discussed with your doctor.

Self-Help and Management of Symptoms

Helping yourself manage symptoms is possible with the right components. Many of those who are living with this disorder find that having a social support network is a vital aspect of living with their diagnosis. It is beneficial to connect with peers and people who understand your challenges. Keeping stress levels under control is another way to help manage symptoms and help you relax.

Regular exercise encourages the body to produce natural energy and boosts your mood. Plenty of sleep is essential and helps your medication work more effectively. Consuming healthy foods and nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids may help balance your sugar levels and mood. Avoid substances such as alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs because they reduce the effectiveness of your medication.

Learning how to cope includes staying up to date on knowledge and information to help you make the best decisions for your recovery. Having a support network, including your doctor, family, and friends, will help you adopt essential methods to improve your well-being.