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Psychosis is a well-known type of mental health symptom that a significant percentage of the world population continues to experience. Often described as a break from reality, these psychotic episodes can make people carry certain beliefs or sense certain things far from factual truths, making it difficult to carry on with their everyday lives. Initially considered a mental health illness, experts now know that psychosis occurs as a symptom triggered by various causative factors. Depending on these causes, the duration of the symptoms also varies, lasting from a few hours to months and years. The key to keeping the symptoms in control, shortening their duration, and minimizing recurrence is to seek timely help and treatment.
An Overview of Psychosis & Symptoms
Psychosis describes a condition where an individual perceives and interprets reality differently than those around them. Those who experience this condition may hear or see things that others do not or carry certain beliefs not based on reality. Experts sometimes see psychosis as a break from reality, pushing a person into a position far from truth and facts. Also known as psychotic experience, psychotic episode, or psychotic symptoms, experts have long considered psychosis a symptom of an underlying mental health condition. However, modern research negates this longstanding viewpoint, proposing various other causes of the condition.
The way a person experiences psychosis can be completely different from another one. These differences are usually based on the triggering cause, individual response, and other personal factors. Similarly, the response to this condition may vary from different people, some making complete recovery within a few months while others continue to struggle for much longer. The symptoms of psychosis are generally categorized into the following three types:
- Cognitive impairments
These symptoms are described below in detail:
As a common symptom of psychosis, hallucinations may cause a person to see, smell, hear, feel, or taste things that others don’t. For instance:
- hearing voices or sounds other people can’t
- tasting things even if you haven’t had or eaten something
- seeing things that others can not see
- smelling things that other people cannot
- feeling someone touching you when there is no one around
Hearing sounds or voices is the commonest type of hallucinations a psychotic episode can lead to. These voices can be male or female, shouting or whispering, friendly and nice or extremely negative, in a different language, or from someone you know or a complete stranger. While some people only hear these voices occasionally for a few minutes, others may continue experiencing this hallucination for hours at a time.
The word “delusion” describes an unusual belief that other people around you do not share, but it feels real to you. For instance, delusions may make you feel that:
- Secret agents or certain members of the public are following you
- Some people are trying to kill you, even if they are strangers or someone you love
- Someone has poisoned your food or water
- Someone has planted a chip into your brain and is monitoring your thoughts
Different people can experience different types of delusions. For instance, some may feel as very powerful person, a type of delusion called delusions of grandeur. Many people can continue or go around their regular jobs despite having these worries, while others may get severely affected.
Following are certain cognitive impairments that may occur secondary to psychosis:
- Problems related to memory
- Concentration issues
- Difficulty making decisions
- Difficulty understanding new information
What Causes Psychosis?
Unfortunately, experts are not sure of the exact causes of psychosis. So far, multiple reasons can possibly trigger the symptoms, the major one being past traumatic life experiences, which are largely out of a person’s control. In general, psychosis can occur:
- As a part of a neurological condition such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, or Parkinson’s
- As a side effect of medication
- Due to brain injury,
- As an effect of illegal drug use, such as cannabis
- Due to menopause
- During times of severe stress or anxiety
Certain individuals experience hallucinations and other symptoms of psychosis when they are extremely fatigued or tired. Research also shows that men from Asian, Black, and Minority ethnic backgrounds are at a higher risk of experiencing psychosis. Mentioned below are certain potential causes of a psychotic episodes in people:
There is sufficient evidence that suggests stressful or traumatic life experiences as a causative factor of psychosis. Research also confirms that around 50% of people hospitalized for a mental health issue have a history of sexual or physical abuse in childhood. At this point, experts suggest various types of life experiences that may trigger psychosis or make a person relapse, such as the following:
- Substance misuse/withdrawal
Research suggests that mental health illness runs in families, and in many cases, the underlying psychotic symptoms might be due to genetic reasons.
Imbalances in Brain Chemicals
Research strongly suggests that changes in brain chemistry can easily trigger psychosis. However, experts are not sure what changes these brain chemicals.
How Long Does a Psychotic Episode Last? The Timeline
While attempting to understand the duration of a psychotic episode, it is imperative to know that the process happens in the form of three distinct stages. These stages include the following:
During this first stage, you may start experiencing several changes in behavior or perception indicative of a potential episode. These warning signs may include the following:
- Difficulty in maintaining concentration
- A strong desire to isolate yourself from others
- Sleep disturbances
- Feeling overwhelmed very easily
Following the prodrome phase, most people quickly transition into the acute phase, where delusions, hallucinations, and other unusual behaviors start occurring. These symptoms can be debilitating and may interfere with day-to-day activities. The length of this phase can vary depending on the cause of psychosis, such as an underlying mental health disorder or drug use.
Recovery forms the final stage of the psychosis timeline, during which the symptoms may slowly start settling, allowing a person to return to their daily life. This phase typically occurs once an individual undergoes treatment for the triggering mental health disorder or stops using the underlying substance of abuse.
Length of Psychosis Based on Triggers
Psychotic symptoms can be a hallmark of various mental illnesses, such as the following:
Brief Reactive Psychosis
These psychotic symptoms arise from an underlying stressful event and typically resolve within a month.
This type of psychosis occurs due to the abuse of certain substances, such as marijuana, ecstasy, LSD, alcohol, speed, or magic mushrooms. The symptoms remain until the body clears off the triggering drug from the system, usually lasting a few hours to a few days.
Most people suffering from schizophrenia experience various psychotic symptoms and may have difficulty organizing their daily thoughts. These symptoms may last as long as schizophrenia lasts.
The extreme mood switches, either too low or too high, in bipolar disorder can easily trigger psychotic symptoms that settle once depending on how soon and successfully you regain control over the mood swings.
In general, the duration of a psychotic episode depends on its type and the causative factor. For example, the one due to an underlying mental health disorder may last for a different time than the one secondary to drug use. Additionally, depending on the mental order triggering it, the length of psychosis may vary. Consider the example of a brief psychotic disorder which may last for a month compared to the one triggered by schizophrenia, where the psychotic symptoms may last for up to six months. Similarly, as a part of the manic episode in bipolar disorder, an individual may experience psychosis for weeks to months.
How Long Does Psychosis Last Depending on the Drug of Choice?
Drug use remains one of the commonest causes of psychotic symptoms. These psychotic events usually begin either during drug use or immediately after it as a part of the withdrawal process. In certain cases, psychosis may occur even after the drug has gotten out of the system. Following are some drugs capable of triggering psychosis, along with their estimated durations:
Meth-related psychosis is typically short-lived, lasting a few hours in a person actively using it. In some, the psychotic symptoms may occur as a part of the withdrawal process and may last as long as a week following the last use. In case the overuse of meth causes brain damage, some of these psychotic episodes may last for a long time, even when the drug has completely left the body, sometimes for months.
Opiates can sometimes induce several psychotic symptoms, which typically last for as long as the drugs remain in the body in detectable amounts.
Alcohol-related psychosis commonly occurs in long-term abusers and typically lasts for as long as the beverage remains in the body. In rare cases, the symptoms may continue after an individual has stopped alcohol use.
Marijuana has been known to trigger psychotic episodes while heightening the risk of schizophrenia. Though experts are still investigating this association, the consequent psychosis due to marijuana use can persist in the long run, even after a person is no longer using it.
Managing Psychotic Symptoms: Professional Treatment
Treatment for psychosis focuses on relieving or eliminating the underlying symptoms. Following are some elements of an effective treatment plan:
Certain medications, for example, antipsychotics, can help the brain restore the normal chemical balance and relieve the active symptoms.
Community Support Programs
Most people undergoing psychosis require ongoing support to continue living independently and safely. An appropriate community support program can provide them with help, such as with accommodation, development of personal and social skills, and finding suitable employment.
Various psychological therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, counseling, and family therapy, aim to teach patients different techniques and skills for coping with stress, managing symptoms, and improving their quality of life.
Peer Support Groups
Peer support groups help individuals connect with others who have gone through similar struggles to provide support and guidance. These peers can also teach them valuable skills based on their experience to lead a productive life with minimal psychotic symptoms.
Lifestyle modifications, such as improvement of general health and stress reduction through music, art, exercise, and other associated therapies, can greatly support recovery. Avoiding alcohol and drug use and improving sleep hygiene can also help.
What mental health conditions share an association with psychosis?
While many people experience psychosis as a one-off experience, it may be a part of an underlying mental health illness for others. Some of these mental health issues possibly triggering psychosis can include the following:
- Schizoaffective disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Delusional disorder
- Postpartum psychosis
- Psychotic depression
Can psychosis go away on its own?
In case the underlying psychosis is a one-time event, such as due to a brief psychotic disorder or drug-induced, it can go away on its own. However, psychosis due to an underlying mental health illness is unlikely to go away unless a person seeks help for it. Studies have indicated that shortening the time between the initial psychotic episode and treatment can significantly improve the overall success rate while reducing recurrence.
Can someone be in psychosis for years?
Many people commonly manifest psychotic episodes for months or even a whole year before the condition is caught and diagnosed. If it remains untreated, the symptoms may prolong even more.
How long does it take to recover from a psychotic break?
In some cases, psychotic symptoms quickly resolve, allowing people to resume a normal life. In other cases, patients may take weeks or even months to recover fully. The exact timeline varies depending on the severity of psychosis, its type, causative factor, and a person’s response to treatment.