What Does It Mean to Have a Psychotic Break?

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A psychotic break occurs when a person loses touch with reality due to a decline in their mental well-being. It could either be a sign of an underlying medical condition or occur due to a stressful or traumatic event.

It’s also referred to as psychosis or a psychotic episode. Some research shows that 3 in 100 people will experience a psychotic break at some point in their lives.

This article looks at signs of a psychotic break, what to expect when it happens, and how best to cope. 

Causes of a Psychotic Break 

It’s not entirely understood why psychosis happens. There’s no single cause for a psychotic break. Several factors or conditions could be responsible for a person’s psychotic break. However, to treat the phenomenon efficiently, it’s essential to first understand what caused it. The most likely causes of a psychotic break include:

  • Genetics: Genetics sometimes plays a role in causing psychotic breaks. Suppose you have a family history of psychosis or conditions that have been linked to psychosis, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In that case, you are more likely to have a psychotic break. However, having a family history of psychosis doesn’t guarantee that you will develop the condition.
  • Physical or emotional trauma: Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event could trigger a psychotic break, especially in people who are already genetically predisposed to developing psychotic breaks. 
  • Drug abuseAbusing certain drugs such as amphetamines or alcohol can increase your risk of developing psychosis. 
  • Brain injuries: Traumatic brain injuries can trigger psychosis in certain people. After a traumatic brain injury, it’s essential to be on the lookout for early signs of psychosis. 
  • Medical conditions: A psychotic break is sometimes a sign of a mental health condition, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Other medical conditions that have been linked to psychosis include depression, schizoaffective disorder, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. 
  • Stress: A psychotic episode can be triggered by severe stress in some instances. This becomes even more likely if there are other factors in place that could lead to a psychotic break, such as being genetically predisposed. 

Signs of a Psychotic Break 

A psychotic break can happen suddenly and can be a frightening experience both for the person going through it and their family and friends. Some early signs lead up to a psychotic break. These signs will, however, look different in each individual.

Some of the most common early symptoms include: 

  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • An unexplainable drop in grades or performance at work 
  • Neglecting personal hygiene and self-care 
  • Self-isolating 
  • Experiencing strong emotions 
  • Having no emotions 

During a psychotic episode, you are likely to experience a range of symptoms that could either be classified as hallucinations or delusions. The mainstays of a psychotic break are hallucinations and delusions.

Hallucinations involve seeing or hearing things that aren’t there or experiencing them distortedly. Delusions involve believing in things that aren’t real.

Examples of hallucinations and delusions you could experience include: 

  • Hearing things that aren’t there 
  • Seeing things that no one else can see 
  • Believing that you have special powers 
  • Believing that external forces are controlling you 

Other symptoms a person might experience include: 

  • Speaking irregularly, this could either be too quickly or too slowly 
  • Having severe mood swings 
  • Having anxiety 
  • Becoming even more isolated 
  • Behaving inappropriately 
  • Having disordered thoughts 

Treatment for a Psychotic Break 

Treatment for psychosis typically involves a combination of medications and psychotherapy, depending on the severity of the psychosis and the underlying cause.

Medication 

Several antipsychotic medications have been developed for the treatment of psychosis. Antipsychotics aim to regulate dopamine in your brain. Dopamine plays a prominent role in triggering psychosis. Serotonin can also be involved. Glutamate and the NMDA receptor are also thought to play an important role. 

Antipsychotics could either be first-generation (sometimes called typical) or second-generation (sometimes called atypical). Second-generation antipsychotics include drugs like Haldol (haloperidol), Prolixin (fluphenazine), Stelazine (trifluoperazine), and Loxitane (loxapine). Commonly prescribed atypical antipsychotics include Abilify (aripiprazole), Invega (paliperidone), Zyprexa (olanzapine), Seroquel (quetiapine), and Risperdal (risperidone).

Psychotherapy 

Psychotherapy is often recommended in combination with medication for the treatment of psychosis. The following forms of psychotherapy have proven to be effective in treating a psychotic break:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is often the first point of call when using therapy to treat several mental health conditions. During CBT, you’ll be taught to understand what’s happening to you during a psychotic break better. You’ll also be equipped with techniques to help you prevent or manage symptoms of a psychotic break, such as reducing mental stress and taking better care of your body and mind. 
  • Family therapy: A psychotic break affects not just you but the people around you too. Family therapy is recommended to help your loved ones understand what’s going on with you and how best to help you during a psychotic break. The care and support of your loved ones during and after a psychotic break can help you cope with your condition better. 

Supporting a Person Who's Having a Psychotic Break 

Witnessing a loved one experience a psychotic break can be a frightening experience. They are likely to do or say things that are out of character and could be hurtful to you. However, your support through the episode and right after is crucial.

While a person experiencing a psychotic break might behave oddly, it’s important to remember that they are not in control of their behavior and are of no harm to you. They are more likely to harm themselves than hurt you, which is why they need your support.

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9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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