What is Psychosis?
Psychosis refers to a range of experiences in which the parts of the brain responsible for processing information and emotions are affected.
It can occur in many different circumstances, including a number of mental health and general medical conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as drug use/interactions.
Here’s what you need to know:
In psychosis, the parts of the brain responsible for processing information and emotions are impacted, 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.
Some common experiences:
- Hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and feeling things that aren’t real, but are extremely real to the person (hallucinations)
- Troubling, unshakable beliefs (delusions). Common beliefs include: ‘people are against me or want to hurt me,’ ‘others can read my mind,’ or ‘I have special powers or abilities.’
- Difficulty concentrating, organizing thoughts or expressing emotions. Oftentimes, sleep is disturbed.
What It Feels 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 have sensory experiences (such as hearing, smelling, tasting or seeing things that others don’t) 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 days, weeks and months. A recurrent episode is sometimes referred to as a “relapse” of symptoms.
A first episode of psychosis is most likely to happen in teen and early adult years, which some researchers believe may relate to rapid changes in the brain that naturally occur during the final stages of development. A first episode usually occurs slightly earlier for men than women.
Psychosis can occur in a great number of health conditions caused by many different things, including drug interactions, heavy metal poisoning, nutritional deficiencies, and neurological and psychiatric disorders. Our focus here is brain health-related psychosis, so we’ll share a little bit about receiving that kind of diagnosis.
Because diagnosis still relies on observing experiences (vs. a definitive blood test, for example), a person having a first episode of psychosis may be given any number of diagnoses, which usually fall under what doctors call psychotic disorders. While that has a decidedly daunting ring to it, it’s important to remember what a diagnostic label really is: merely shorthand for medical professionals and researchers to describe a particular cluster of symptoms and experiences. Because our symptoms and experiences tend to change over time, so too can diagnoses.
For some, getting a diagnosis can feel like a relief, like an answer to a burning question. But for many, a label like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia can feel not only somewhat arbitrary, but also a heavy burden to carry, often with little support from medical professionals or loved ones as to how to put a diagnosis into context of a greater sense of self or identity.
Given current limits in our scientific understanding, combined with a damaging social stigma that still clouds diagnostic labels, here’s our advice about a diagnosis, if you are “offered” one:
TRY NOT TO DWELL ON IT.
We’ve found it 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 guide you through it!), and entails seeking out a well-rounded mix of support, therapy, self-care, and sometimes, the right medication.
Bottom line: if a diagnosis is helpful to you, then great. Wear it with pride, and maybe even join the much needed movement toward greater social dialogue and acceptance. But if you find it weighing you down, remember that it’s simply a label.
And no label can define who you are inside.
Contrary to common assumptions, a diagnosis of psychosis doesn’t have to be forever. And it doesn’t mean you can’t lead the life you’ve envisioned.
Psychosis, especially the early stages, can be treated, and most people are able to make a full recovery. Without treatment, it’s true that psychosis can be seriously disruptive to your life and health, so it’s important to get help early.