What Are Ideas of Reference and Delusions of Reference?

Learn the Difference Between These Experiences

Ideas Of Reference
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In people with bipolar disorder, mania and hypomania can comprise various symptoms, from reckless spending to sexual promiscuity. In addition, some more subtle symptoms may also occur, such as the belief held by some patients that everything occurring around them is related somehow to them when in fact, it isn't. This symptom is known as ideas of reference. An extension of those irrational beliefs, delusions of reference can cause patients to change their behavior significantly because of this mistaken belief.

These two symptoms—ideas of reference and delusions of reference—can affect people in very different ways. For example, a man might believe that secret messages about him are broadcast in a weekly television show, to the point where he records the programs and watches them again and again. Meanwhile, a woman might be convinced that all the notices posted on boards outside churches are aimed directly at her, which frightens her so much that she refuses to leave the house.

Some clinicians and researchers use the terms ideas of reference and delusions of reference interchangeably. Other sources differentiate between the two, saying that ideas of reference have less impact on the person's life as a whole.

Ideas of Reference vs. Delusions of Reference

Whereas ideas of reference are real events that are internalized personally, delusions of reference are not based in reality. However, ideas of reference may act as a precursor to delusions of reference.

 

Many people will experience passing thoughts of ideas of reference. For example, you go to a party and just for a minute honestly believe everyone is whispering about you. This is within the scope of normal human behavior unless it happens to you constantly.

It's when these thoughts cross the line outside of actual facts or events (when you believe people you don't even know are whispering about you, and you proceed to hide out at home because of this) that the thoughts turn into delusions.

The 3 Criteria for Delusion

Karl Jaspers, a German-Swiss psychiatrist, described the main criteria for a true delusion. They include:

  • Certainty (the person is convinced the delusion is real)
  • Incorrigibility (the person cannot be convinced otherwise or have the belief shaken in any way)
  • Impossibility (the delusion is not real at all)

Some people have only occasional, random delusions of reference, while others have them all the time.

If these thoughts occur for more than one month and they involve events that actually could happen (such as being followed, infected with a disease, or loved at a distance), delusional disorder is the diagnosis. The key difference between delusions of reference and delusional disorder is delusions of reference are most definitely not real, while the thoughts in delusional disorder could possibly be real (although they're quite unlikely).

Other Types of Delusions

  • Bizarre delusions have no possibility or basis to happen in reality.
  • Delusions of control mean that a patient's thoughts, feelings, and actions are not his or her own, but instead originate from some external force or person.
  • Depressive delusions are marked by a predominant depressive mood. These might include delusions involving a serious illness, poverty or spousal infidelity. 

    Treatment of Ideas and Delusions of Reference

    Antipsychotic medications can help with delusions of reference, as can counseling and psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is used to help people reframe their thoughts and explore logical explanations for their line of thinking.

    Sources:

    Kiran C, Chaudhury S (2009). "Understanding delusions" Ind Psychiatry J18: 3–18. 

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