What is Psychosis?

Causes, Treatments and Potential Precursors

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Psychosis is a loss of contact with reality, typically including delusions (false ideas about what is taking place or who you are) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren't there). About 3 in every 100 people experience psychosis at some time in their lives.

Symptoms of Psychosis

Psychosis in itself is a symptom of another problem, not its own illness. Symptoms of psychosis include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Disorganized, scattered thinking and speech
  • Thoughts that jump around from subject to subject

If you think you or someone you love is experiencing psychosis, it's important to seek medical treatment immediately. The earlier you get treatment and intervention, the better. Experiencing psychotic symptoms can be scary to both you and the people around you and may even cause you to hurt yourself or others.  

Physical Causes of Psychosis

Physical problems that can cause psychosis include:

  • Certain types of epilepsy
  • Stroke
  • Brain cysts or tumors
  • Certain prescription drugs, particularly steroids and stimulants
  • HIV
  • Dementia
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Alcohol or certain illegal drugs, including methamphetamine

Mental Conditions Associated With Psychosis

Psychosis is a symptom associated with the manic phase of bipolar I disorder, as well as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizoaffective disorder.

Other conditions where psychosis may be present include postpartum psychosis and depressive episodes. 

Treatments for Psychosis

Treating psychosis depends on the cause. Hospitalization may be necessary. If you have a disorder that involves psychosis, starting or changing antipsychotics may also be helpful in keeping psychotic symptoms and episodes at bay.


Typical Antipsychotics

The older, first-generation of antipsychotics are known as typical antipsychotics. They can be a very effective treatment, but may have harsher side effects, such as tardive dyskinesia and extrapyramidal side effects. Examples of common typical antipsychotics include:

Atypical Antipsychotics

The newer, second-generation of antipsychotics are called atypical antipsychotics and tend to have fewer side effects than the typical class. Examples of common atypical antipsychotics include:

  • Zyprexa (olanzapine)
  • Fanapt (iloperidone)
  • Invega (paliperidone)
  • Seroquel (quetiapine)
  • Risperdal (risperidone)
  • Geodon (ziprasidone)
  • Abilify (aripiprazole)
  • Saphris (asenapine maleate)
  • Clozaril (clozapine)
  • Latuda (lurasidone)

Potential Precursors to a Psychotic Episode

Not everyone has warning signs that a psychotic episode is coming, but some people do.

These signs and symptoms can occur over several months and may fluctuate in both severity and type. This period of changing thoughts, feelings and behaviors before a psychotic episode is called the prodromal phase. Symptoms of prodrome can include:

  • Mood changes. You may feel more irritable, angry, depressed, suspicious, anxious or experience mood swings.
  • Changes in your thinking. You may have more trouble concentrating than normal, feel like your thoughts are either faster or slower, have memory difficulties or come up with strange ideas.
  • Changes in your perception and physical needs. You may find yourself sleeping more erratically than normal or not sleeping as much, eating more or less than usual, having less energy, perceiving things in a different way than you normally do or having physical ailments like headaches or stomachaches.
  • Changes in how you view yourself and the world around you. You may feel off or different or as if the environment around you has changed.


"Psychosis." MedLine Plus, U.S. National Library of Medicine (2014).

"Atypical Antipsychotic Drugs Information." U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2015).

"Early Identification of Psychosis: A Primer." Mental Health Evaluation & Community Consultation Unit, Ministry of Health, Province of British Columbia.

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