Negative Psychotic Symptoms

Negative psychotic symptoms are characterized by absence or loss of experience

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Psychotic symptoms can be divided into two groups: positive psychotic symptoms and negative psychotic symptoms.

Positive symptoms are characterized by the presence of unusual feelings, thoughts, or behaviors. Positive symptoms include such experiences as hallucinations or delusions. A hallucination could be hearing voices that no one else can hear or see things that are not really there.

Negative psychotic symptoms are those characterized by absence or loss of experience. Negative psychotic symptoms include:

  • A decrease in the ability to emotionally respond to people, events, etc.
  • A decrease in speaking (alogia)
  • Difficulty sticking with activities and tasks; the appearance of being unmotivated or withdrawn

Psychotic Symptoms and PTSD

Although negative symptoms are generally associated with primary psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and not PTSD, researchers at the University of Manitoba, Columbia University and the University of Regina examined the data on 5,877 people from across the United States to determine the rates with which people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience different psychotic symptoms.

They found that among people with PTSD, the experience of positive psychotic symptoms was most common.

Approximately 52% of people who reported having PTSD at some point in their lifetime also reported experiencing a positive psychotic symptom.

The most common positive symptoms were:

  • Believing that other people were spying on or following them (27.5%)
  • Seeing something that others could not see (19.8%)
  • Having unusual feelings inside or outside of their bodies, such as feeling as though they were being touched when no one was really there (16.8%)
  • Believing that they could hear what someone else was thinking (12.4%)
  • Being bothered by strange smells that no one else could smell (10.3%)
  • Believing that their behaviors and thoughts were being controlled by some power or force (10%)

The researchers also found evidence that the more PTSD symptoms a person was experiencing, the greater the likelihood that they would also experience positive psychotic symptoms.

To take their study a step further, the researchers also looked at what traumatic events were most commonly related to the experience of psychotic symptoms. They found the following to be most strongly connected:

  • Being involved in a fire, flood, or natural disaster
  • Seeing someone get seriously injured or killed
  • Experiencing tremendous shock as a result of a traumatic event that happened to a close relative, friend, or significant other

What This All Means

The experience of psychotic symptoms in PTSD may be overlooked. The presence of these symptoms may contribute to the story of how well a person is coping with the condition. It may also raise red flags about the likelihood of potentially dangerous behaviors.

It has been suggested that the experience of psychotic symptoms in those with PTSD may be connected to the experience of dissociation. Frequent dissociation may increase the risk for the development of psychotic symptoms. And studies have shown that people with PTSD who experience psychotic symptoms, as compared to those who do not, may be at greater risk for a number of problems, such as suicidal thoughtssuicide attempts, and greater overall distress.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

If a loved one has PTSD and is experiencing psychotic symptoms, it is very important that they seek out treatment. Various different resources are available for people seeking help for their PTSD.

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.