What is Psychosis?

woman discussing psychotic episodes with her therapist

Psychosis can most simply be described as a break from reality. It typically manifests as a symptom of a number of different conditions that cause a person to believe or perceive something that is not, in fact, happening in reality. As a result, it may be difficult for someone experiencing psychosis to differentiate between what is happening in their minds and what is really happening in their day-to-day lives. It is possible to experience hallucinations as a result of psychosis, where a person sees, hears, tastes, or feels things that aren’t real. Similarly, it can present as delusions, when a person strongly believes that something is true despite it going against what is generally accepted or evidently true. Disorganized thinking, speech, and behavior can also be signs. 

Psychosis is a symptom, not a distinct diagnostic disorder in and of itself. It can occur in several conditions, including: 

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Brain diseases like Huntington’s or Parkinson’s disease
  • Brain tumors or cysts
  • Delusional disorder
  • Dementia, such as in Alzheimer’s disease
  • Drug or alcohol-induced psychosis
  • Head injury
  • Major depression
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Serious infections 
  • Severe stress, anxiety, or lack of sleep

How Does Psychosis Work?

The way a person experiences psychosis and what triggers the psychotic episode are crucial factors in determining how long a psychotic episode will last and the time spent recovering. For example, drug-induced psychosis may last a shorter duration or be easier to treat than psychosis brought on by schizophrenia or dementia. 

Psychosis can be divided into three stages: prodrome, acute, and recovery.

Prodrome Phase

The prodromal stage of psychosis is characterized by changes in behavior or perception that indicate a psychotic episode is about to occur. In the early stages of psychosis, an individual might find it difficult to focus on what they are doing or thinking, feel easily overwhelmed, experience sleep disturbances, be more inclined to be alone than usual, or refrain from participating in social events.

Acute Phase

The acute phase of psychosis is characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and other abnormal behavior. Usually, these symptoms are debilitating and can impair a person’s ability to carry on with everyday tasks. Acute psychosis can last for varying lengths of time depending on whether it’s being caused by mental illness or substance abuse.


Recovery is the final phase of psychosis. In this stage, the symptoms of psychosis begin to lessen, and the person is able to start getting back to normal. A person usually enters this phase after receiving treatment for their mental illness for some time or after stopping the abuse of whatever substance may have been causing their psychosis.

Does Psychosis Go Away on Its Own?

The psychosis may go away on its own if it is a one-time event, such as with a brief psychotic disorder or a substance-induced psychotic episode. Psychosis that results from an underlying mental illness, on the other hand, is less likely to disappear on its own. Studies have shown that prescribing treatment sooner rather than later can boost a person’s overall chances of quick and successful recovery. By seeking treatment early after symptoms begin, the severity of psychotic episodes can also be reduced.

Michelle Olshan-Perlmuttern, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, says an individual experiencing a psychotic episode not only has their life completely turned upside down and feels scared, but it negatively impacts their brain and makes it more difficult for them to return to their previous level of functioning. She says to think of your brain like an ice cube. When you have one of these episodes, it’s almost as if the brain melts a little bit and then refreezes — and it isn’t always in the same shape after. This is one of the reasons why it’s so vital to prevent any more occurrences and stop the process in its tracks.

The sooner a person receives the right support and treatment after experiencing a psychotic episode, the better the outcome.

The Right Time to Seek Help

A person experiencing psychosis for the first time may not know whether to seek help or not. The sooner someone receives help for psychosis, however, the better their chances of recovery. When an individual experiences psychosis that is not related to alcohol or drugs, it is important for them to seek out care with a trusted provider. This will enable them to monitor their symptoms and receive appropriate treatment if they progress.

In the case of people who experience psychosis while using substances, it is usually a sign of a substance use disorder since psychosis typically occurs with chronic substance use. Getting treated for their substance use disorder and stopping the use of the substance is often the best way to improve their symptoms of psychosis.

If you or a loved one are experiencing psychosis, Life Adjustment Team can help. We offer flexible and individual-oriented assertive community treatment services that meet our clients where they are, and take place in settings that allow your loved one to feel safe and make progress in their journeys to recovery in ways that aren’t always possible in a traditional inpatient setting. Contact a member of our Clinical Team to find out more and get started today!

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