What Causes Psychosis?

There is still a lot we don’t know about the exact causes of psychosis. But researchers have a pretty good idea that – just like many health conditions – it’s caused by a mix of family history (a “genetic vulnerability” that you’re born with) and stress from life events, drugs or illness.

To help better understand the stress factor, let’s imagine that your brain is a jar, and that life stressors are pennies. As the jar fills up with pennies, the way your brain cells communicate with one another begins to change. When the jar is overloaded and spills over, your brain’s ability to process information and emotions is impacted, which results in altered perceptions of reality. This state of stress-overload is what we call a “psychotic episode.”

While family history of psychosis is not a prerequisite for a psychotic episode to occur, it takes a smaller amount of stress to trigger it in people who are born with a genetic vulnerability. This is why if you have a family history of mental health issues, it’s especially important to limit stress and be aware of risk factors.

Other common stressors that can increase the risk of developing psychosis – especially when a family history is present – include:

Common Psychosis Risk Factors
  • Stressful events such as a death in the family, transition to a new school, extreme work or academic pressure, relationship break up
  • Lack of sleep
  • Trauma
  • Drug use/withdrawal – especially high THC marijuana, speed, cocaine, crystal meth, ecstasy (MDMA), acid (LSD), mushrooms, special/”vitamin” K (ketamine) and heroin (opiates)
  • Difficult delivery at birth
  • Being born in the winter months
  • Growing up in a big city
  • Moving to a new country

Keeping Stress In Check Can Change Your Brain

So wait, does this mean that if your mom has a mental illness, you were born in December, grew up in New York City and smoked your fair share of weed that you will definitely experience psychosis?

Your chances might be higher, but no. Because we all have different sensitivities to stress. Some people are more sensitive to certain kinds of stress, and are therefore more likely to develop psychosis under those circumstances.

The good news: You can lower your risk by doing some pretty simple stuff.

When it comes to risk factors for psychosis, there are some we have control over and some we don’t.

We may be stuck with our genetic makeup, for example, but we can literally change how our brain functions by practicing healthy behaviors and enlisting the help of supportive therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy.

And it’s important to remember that if you do experience psychosis symptoms, recovery doesn’t just mean treating symptoms with medication and/or targeted therapy. It also means finding ways to “zap” the stressors that are getting between you and the life you want to lead.

Good self-care habits are like a protective shield that can help us be well and recover, so for the best shot at recovery, start establishing your stress-reduction practices early. Do the best you can to surround yourself with a team of friends, family and health professionals who can support you as you develop a lifestyle that works best for you.

Grumpy cat sleep
Here are a 7 of our favorite effective stress-zapping tips:
  1. Get enough sleep.
  2. Establish a support system made up of trusted friends and family.
  3. Learn and practice effective strategies for dealing with stress.
  4. Eat healthy.
  5. Exercise regularly.
  6. Do cognitive behavioral therapy.
  7. Take medication (as prescribed).
For more about coping strategies and stress-zapping, check out Things That Can Help.

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