What is psychosis?

Psychosis is a mental health condition where a person loses contact with reality. It becomes hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. The symptoms can be mild or extreme. Psychosis can show up in many different ways:

Perception

  • Hearing sounds or voices that others don’t
  • Seeing ghost-like shadows or wavy lines
  • Suddenly having a decreased sense of smell
  • Becoming very sensitive to light, sound, or touch.

Behavior

  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Anger or fear towards loved ones
  • Changes in sleep, including reversal: sleeping during the day and staying awake at night
  • Changes in appetite
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Behaviors that are strange or don’t seem like “you”
  • Nonsensical or bizarre speech or writing
  • Suddenly being unable to function at work or school

Thoughts

  • Feeling disconnected or numb about important situations
  • Feeling like things aren’t real or quite right
  • Believing that you are constantly being watched, or that other people can read your mind
  • Extreme fear for no apparent reason
  • Paranoia or bizarre fears that won’t go away
  • Trouble focusing and remembering things

Psychosis is a symptom, not a specific type of mental illness. People most commonly think of it as a symptom of schizophrenia, but it can also show up in bipolar disorder during a manic episode. There’s even such a thing as psychotic depression. Some medications or recreational drugs can also trigger psychosis. So can extreme stress or sleep deprivation.


Psychosis is fairly common: about 3% of people experience it. It tends to get worse over time, so it's important to start seeking treatment as early as possible.

Experiencing psychosis can be scary and confusing, and friends and family may not know what to do when they want to help. When you’re trying to help someone with psychosis, it’s important to keep in mind that whatever they’re experiencing is real to them.

The good news is that recovery is possible. Whether it is a single experience with psychosis or something that occurs throughout a person’s life, people who experience psychosis can live full, meaningful lives and contribute to their communities. Treatment, services, and supports are available to help people develop a plan based on what they need and want to achieve.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with psychosis, it’s important to reach out for professional help as soon as possible. The earlier an individual gets support and treatment, the better! If you’re not sure whether you’re experiencing psychosis, start by taking our mental health screen.

References

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

Further Reading

Treatment & Resources