9 Facts You Should Know About Psychosis

by Julie A. Fast Patient Advocate

“You’re psychotic!” Many people use the words psychotic and psychosis to describe a person’s behavior and yet few understand the very real and quite common symptoms of psychotic experiences and disorders. Psychosis is a break with reality that results from changes in brain chemistry created through illness, substance reactions, or sleep deprivation. The main symptoms of psychosis are hallucinations and delusions.

Woman reaching out and touching a wall
Andrei Lazarev

What Are Psychotic Hallucinations and Delusions?

Hallucinations involve the senses. When a person with psychosis sees, smells, hears, tastes, or physically feels something that isn’t there, it’s a hallucination. A delusion is a false belief. Note these words carefully. False means the thoughts and behaviors are not true, but belief means that the person honestly and passionately believes the thoughts and feelings.

What Causes Psychosis?

All humans have the ability to become psychotic. Chemicals in the brain such as dopamine affect our thoughts and behaviors. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have the symptom of psychosis, but psychosis can also be a reaction to medications (such as steroids), sleep deprivation, hallucinogenics including magic mushrooms (psilocybin), LSD and the THC in cannabis. Each person is different and what is simply an "experience" for some, can turn into psychosis for others.

Are Psychotic Breaks Just Misunderstood Spiritual Experiences?

Psychosis is a medical condition. Hallucinations and delusions often create negative consequences. People on the outside can sense something is wrong and the psychotic behavior seriously disrupts relationships and work ability. Bizarre thinking often affects self-care. Spiritual experiences can involve seeing what is not there and believing in something others might not see, but spiritual experiences rarely disrupt life as negatively as psychosis.

Is Paranoia Psychosis?

Paranoia is a psychotic delusion that creates suspicions shown not to be real. High functioning people can have paranoid thoughts such as conspiracy theories, but we would not call these people psychotic. In contrast, paranoid psychosis is disruptive. The delusions can lead to false accusations and violence if a person tries to protect themselves from an unseen threat. Since the paranoia is a belief, trying to reason with the person is impossible.

Couple having an argument

What Is the Difference Between Jealousy and Paranoia in a Relationship?

Jealousy is often based in a person’s worry that a partner is unfaithful, whereas paranoid jealousy often involves bizarre and unfounded accusations. Jealousy sounds like this: “I saw you looking at the guy at the party. Did you think he was better looking than me?” Paranoid jealousy sounds like: “I know you secretly met that guy in the bathroom and you’re meeting him tonight at midnight once I fall asleep. You used a secret hand signal right at him as we left! I’m not stupid!”

Scared little boy in bed

Do Children Get Psychotic?

All humans, no matter what age, have the ability to break with reality. Children experience psychosis, especially with early onset mental health disorders. Thinking that psychosis is for adults only prevents children with psychotic symptoms from receiving the help they need. Children often call psychotic symptoms nightmares or night terrors. For some kids, it really does feel like there is a monster under the bed.

Can Cannabis Cause Psychosis?

Yes. Cannabis (marijuana) is a plant that includes 113 different chemical compounds called cannabinoids. One cannabinoid, THC, is a hallucinogenic that can create psychosis in a stable brain. If a person has a psychiatric condition, multiple studies show that using high THC marijuana (with a THC content of 10 percent or higher) increases the likelihood of psychosis by 500 percent. If you have a mental health disorder, THC is a high risk.

How Can I Prevent Psychosis?

Whether you are stable or have a diagnosis, avoiding hallucinogenics including ayahuasca, psilocybin, and THC is a start. If you have a diagnosis, managing psychosis through lifestyle changes helps reduce symptoms. Large crowds, new workplaces, unexpected stress, and change, in general, can be rough on those of us who have psychosis. Medications including antipsychotics and mood stabilizers can be used to prevent psychotic episodes, as well.

Man receiving a prescription from a pharmacist

How Do You Treat Psychosis?

If the psychosis is chronic, antipsychotic medications are still the most effective treatment for children and adults. It’s a trade-off between stability and side effects. I always suggest making behavior changes first, and then adding medications for what can’t be managed naturally. Psychosis is disruptive. For those of us who have psychotic disorders, symptom awareness and daily management are key.

Julie A. Fast
Meet Our Writer
Julie A. Fast

Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get it Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards. Julie won the Mental Health America Journalism Award for the best mental health column in the U.S. and was the recipient of the Eli Lily Reintegration award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners on bipolar disorder and mental health management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show "Homeland" and is on the mental health expert registry for People Magazine. She is a sought-after coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder.