What is Psychosis?

Here’s what you need to know

Psychosis impacts the parts of the brain that are responsible for processing information and emotions, causing a person to misinterpret or confuse what is going on around them. Psychosis can cause significant changes in a person’s perceptions, beliefs, thoughts and behaviors.

Psychosis can occur in many different circumstances, including a number of mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD and depression, as well as with recreational drug use, drug interactions and other medical conditions.

Some common experiences include:

  • Hallucinations. Hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and feeling things that aren’t real, but seem real.
  • Troubling, unshakable beliefs. Also known as delusions, some examples of common troubling beliefs include thoughts like, “people are against me,” “people want to hurt me,” “others can read my mind,” or “I have special powers/abilities.”
  • Difficulty concentrating, organizing thoughts or expressing emotions. Oftentimes, sleep is also disturbed.

What does psychosis feel like?

The experience of psychosis is different for everyone.

Many have described the earliest recognizable symptoms as their minds playing subtle tricks on them, the world becoming out of focus, or an inability to “think straight.”

Some have likened the experience to being stuck in a nightmare (many refer to the movie The Truman Show), while others may hear, see, smell or feel things that are present but not disturbing.

Psychosis tends to come and go in “episodes” of more intense symptoms. The length of an episode varies greatly from person to person, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days, weeks or months. A recurrent episode is sometimes referred to as a “relapse” of symptoms.

Check out our Stories of Strength blog and video series to hear from people who have experienced psychosis as teens and young adults — and what it was like for them to find support and wellness again.


How common is it?

Psychosis is more common than many think.

It’s not uncommon to experience temporary symptoms of psychosis as a result of extreme stress, trauma, lack of sleep or even as a part of the natural course of brain development.

In fact, a first episode of psychosis is most likely to occur in teen and early adult years, which some researchers believe may relate to rapid changes in the brain that happen naturally during the final stages of development. A first episode usually occurs slightly earlier for men than women.

But just because someone experiences psychosis does not mean that they automatically have, or will have a psychotic disorder.

While 100,000 Americans develop a new psychotic disorder each year, only about 3% of these experiences develop into a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Still, an estimated 9 million Americans are currently living with psychotic disorders.


What does a psychosis diagnosis really mean?

Though psychosis can occur in a great number of health conditions and be caused by many different things—including drug interactions, heavy metal poisoning, nutritional deficiencies, and neurological and psychiatric disorders—our focus here is on brain health-related psychosis.

Unlike other illnesses that are diagnosed through definitive testing methods like blood tests, a psychosis diagnosis still relies entirely on observed experiences. A person who has had a first episode of psychosis may be given any number of diagnoses, which typically fall under what doctors call psychotic disorders.

What Is PsychosisWhile it may sound daunting, it’s important to remember what a diagnostic label really is: shorthand used by medical professionals and researchers to describe a particular cluster of symptoms and experiences.

And remember what we said about neuroplasticity: Our symptoms and experiences tend to change over time, and so, too can the state of our brain health, and thus, a diagnosis.

For some, getting a diagnosis can feel like a relief, like an answer to a burning question. But for others, a label like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia can feel not only somewhat arbitrary, but also like a heavy burden to carry. It can be challenging to figure out where a diagnosis fits in with a greater sense of self or identity.


So if you’ve been given a diagnosis, here’s our advice:

Try not to dwell on it.

Rather than focusing in on a diagnostic label, we’ve found that it’s way more helpful to focus on identifying the things/symptoms/experiences that stand in our way of living a full life, and zeroing in on how to best overcome those things.

This is hard work (which is why we’re here to help guide you through it!), and involves seeking out a well-rounded mix of support, therapy, self-care, and sometimes, the right medication.

Bottom line: if a diagnosis is useful to you, then great. Wear it with pride, and maybe even join the much-needed movement toward decreasing stigma, greater social dialogue and acceptance. But if you find that a label is weighing you down, remember that it’s just that: a label. No label can define who you are inside.


And remember, recovery is totally possible.

Psychosis, especially in the early stages, can be treated, and most people are able to make a full recovery. Without treatment, on the other hand, psychosis can be seriously disruptive to your life and health, so it’s important to get help early.

You can’t simply choose to make it go away, and it’s definitely not cowardly to suffer or to seek help. In fact, it takes great courage and strength to do what needs to be done and to take care of yourself by any means necessary.

Up next:


Causes of Psychosis

What stress has to do with it.

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Coping With Voices

Our tips for when voices get in the way.

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