How Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Psychosis Overlap

Odd perceptual experiences are a classic sign of psychosis

People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) tend to exhibit symptoms such as intrusive thoughts and memories, avoidance of trauma reminders, emotional numbing and high levels of anxious arousal, but they may also exhibit signs of psychosis.

These symptoms include odd perceptual experiences, or symptoms that generally would be considered to be part of a psychosis. In fact, this co-occurrence is common enough that some mental health professionals have developed specialized treatments for people with both PTSD and psychotic symptoms.

The Relationship Between PTSD and Psychotic Symptoms

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As indicated above, a substantial percentage of people with PTSD may also experience some psychotic symptoms. However, it is important to remember that just because you experience psychotic symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia. In fact, studies of PTSD and psychotic symptoms have generally found that people with PTSD only experience a subset of psychotic symptoms.

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Negative Psychotic Symptoms

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As previously mentioned, just because someone with PTSD is experiencing psychotic symptoms does not necessarily mean that they have a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia. It is possible that the person is only experiencing negative or positive symptoms of psychosis.

Psychotic symptoms are divided into two categories: negative or positive symptoms. Negative symptoms refer to the absence of some experience (for example, emotions). Learn more about the common negative psychotic symptoms.

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Positive Psychotic Symptoms

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Learn about psychotic symptoms that fall into the positive category. Unlike negative psychotic symptoms, positive psychotic symptoms refer to the presence of odd perceptual experiences, such as hallucinations. Research has shown that positive psychotic symptoms, in particular, are common among some people with PTSD.

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Flashbacks and Dissociation in PTSD

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Many people with PTSD experience flashbacks and periods of dissociation, particularly when under high levels of distress. Although these are not considered psychotic symptoms, they may share some features with psychotic symptoms.

In particular, during a severe flashback, a person may see, hear, or smell things that other people cannot experience -- consistent with a hallucination. Flashbacks and dissociation can be very frightening experiences. They may make a person feel as though they do not have control over their body and experiences, and the unpredictable nature of these symptoms can be frightening. This article presents information on dissociation and flashbacks and some ways of coping. 

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The Treatment of Schizophrenia and PTSD

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Sometimes, a person will suffer from both PTSD and a psychotic disorder. Schizophrenia is one of the most common psychotic disorders. Research has shown that many people with schizophrenia also have histories of traumatic exposure and may also exhibit symptoms of PTSD. Learn more about how these conditions are treated together.

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