Psychosis is one of the most common mental health issues affecting young adults. While it’s difficult to know exact numbers, studies estimate that 15-100 people out of every 100,000 develop psychosis each year.
Around 1%–2% of adults in the United States have some kind of psychotic episode during their lives, with an unknown but likely high fraction of them experiencing recurring psychotic breaks throughout life. But what is a psychotic break? It can be difficult to recognize the signs and symptoms while they’re going on, but knowing what psychosis is could be the key to getting the necessary help in time.
What Is Psychosis?
Psychosis is a mental health condition in which a person develops delusional thoughts and perceptions, sometimes losing touch with reality altogether. Typically, people in this state perceive the world around them in fundamentally different ways from other people. People with psychosis sometimes hallucinate, hear voices or develop the delusional belief that others are following them, spying on them or otherwise working against them. They may also develop an inability to interpret or process others’ words or actions, and their actions or words might not correspond with the circumstances they’re in. Schizophrenia is one of the best known and most common forms of psychosis.
What Is a Psychotic Episode?
Psychosis may come on gradually or all at once. The latter is called a psychotic break. The person experiencing a psychotic break may not be able to recognize the symptoms as they occur, though they may appear altered to other people. People in this condition may be aware that they’re experiencing psychosis, which can cause feelings of anger and fear, or they may be totally unaware of what’s happening to them, meaning others must recognize the signs of psychosis and seek help on their behalf.
What Are the Signs of Psychosis?
There are three main symptoms of psychosis: hallucinations, delusions and confused or disturbed thinking. All these symptoms may show signs that are visible to others in unusual or irregular outward behavior. Hallucinations are perceptual disturbances, usually affecting the way the brain processes sensory inputs. A person may experience visual or auditory hallucinations in which they see things that aren’t there or hear sounds that aren’t happening. Visual hallucinations can be almost anything, but they’re often the perception of people who aren’t present when the person is hallucinating, while hearing voices is a common auditory hallucination.
Delusions are similar to hallucinations, but they mostly affect a person’s internal thinking or emotional state. A person with delusions may come to believe things that aren’t true and cling to them without an intelligible reason. Delusions may be grand, such as the belief that a person possesses secret knowledge or important information for other people, or they may be paranoid, as when a person believes they’re being followed or threatened. People in this state might think they’re in contact with God or with a government agency, for example, and try to act accordingly.
Confusion and disturbed thinking are also common symptoms of psychosis. The lack of reality a person experiences during a schizophrenic break often leads them to say or do things that appear highly irrational to outside observers, or to be unable to explain why they’ve done something. Disturbed thinking can involve severe emotional upset that’s not connected to any event or experience, or it may develop into dark, depressed or even suicidal thinking that calls for immediate intervention.
What Can Trigger a Psychotic Episode?
Researchers can’t say with absolute certainty what can trigger a psychotic episode, but certain factors are known to be associated with psychotic breaks. High levels of prolonged stress are a common trigger that can loosen a person’s grip on reality, as are co-occurring mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or drug addiction. It’s rare that physical trauma will trigger an actual psychotic episode, though traumatic brain injuries can have unpredictable effects on people and may result in behavior that’s similar to a psychotic break.
People with an underlying psychotic disorder are especially prone to having a break, as when a person with schizophrenia experiences a relapse of hallucinations and delusional thinking. Bipolar disorder can also trigger a psychotic break, especially during the manic phase when reality can escape the person and trigger dangerous or risk-seeking behavior. Delusional and disturbed thoughts are also common during the depressive phase of bipolar episodes.
In addition to these causes, some chronic conditions are associated with psychotic breaks. People with dementia, for example, become increasingly prone to episodes of psychosis as their disease progresses. Long-term drug and alcohol abuse can trigger a psychotic episode, such as the well-known delirium tremens (DTs) that sometimes causes hallucinations during alcohol detox. A psychotic episode may also be triggered by physical changes to the brain, such as when a tumor has grown enough to damage the surrounding tissues or when chemical exposure affects the brain’s ability to regulate dopamine levels in the cerebral cortex.
Psychosis Risk Factors
It’s broadly possible for anyone to have at least one psychotic break during their life, but certain factors make this more likely for some people. People with close family members who have a history of psychosis are at elevated risk, as are people with DiGeorge syndrome, technically called the 22q11.2 genetic mutation.
Treatments for Psychosis
Treatments for psychosis come in several stages, from dealing with the immediate issues to long-term care and maintenance. During a psychotic break, the first priority is to ensure the safety of the person experiencing the symptoms and others who may be affected. During inpatient treatment, a person may be given neuraleptic drugs, such as Thorazine, to get the delusions and hallucinations under control. As the acute symptoms of psychosis diminish, a long-term care plan is developed for the person to follow that may include family structures, group living, regular check-ins with an outpatient clinic or group therapy with other people managing psychosis.
Help for Psychosis Is Available
If you think you may have had a psychotic episode or someone you care for is showing signs of a psychotic break, there’s help close at hand. Contact Restore Mental Health for a confidential and free consultation, referral for care and emotional support from an understanding mental health professional today.