Psychosis and Unusual Experiences

Signs of psychosis often start in the late teens and early twenties as people begin important life changes such as starting college or a first job. These signs, including hearing voices and having suspicious thoughts, are fairly common; living with these experiences does not mean a person is “crazy.” It is important to keep in mind that people experience stress and mental health issues differently, whether it involves panic attacks, depression, or hearing voices. Having psychotic symptoms can make people feel isolated and keep them from sharing their thoughts with others. As with other distressing mental health symptoms, seeking support and help are important, and the earlier you get help, the better chance you have of managing and improving your symptoms.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Psychosis

Please note that these symptoms are all within the spectrum of normal experiences or may be present in other conditions such as anxiety. They do not automatically mean that a person has psychosis.

Disturbances or changes in your perceptions or senses:

  • Hearing your name being called, hearing low muffled voices, hearing people talking when you do not see anyone present or others don’t hear it
  • Having unusual sensations on your skin or in your body when you do not see anything
  • Regularly seeing flashes of light or things out of the corner of your eye (excluding ophthalmic issues)

Changes in thinking:

  • Suspicious thoughts that others are talking about you, following you, monitoring you, or conspiring against you in some way
  • Ideas that other people or machines are controlling your thoughts or behaviors
  • Thoughts that you are being referenced on TV, the Internet, or other media
  • Ideas that you have supernatural or extremely accomplished powers or abilities or special connections to celebrities or religious figures

Difficulty organizing your thoughts and speech:

  • Others might comment that they don’t understand your ideas or that you are speaking differently

Changes in behavior:

  • Isolating socially or avoiding responsibilities because you don’t feel like engaging, are overwhelmed by thoughts or voices, or have suspicious thoughts about others
  • Not taking care of yourself or not attending to your personal hygiene (for example, not bathing or eating)
  • What you are saying and how you are showing emotions are out of sync (for example, laughing when you are describing something disturbing or sad)

Causes of Unusual Experiences

  • A mental health condition such as schizophrenia, brief psychotic disorder, or bipolar disorder with psychotic features
  • Drug use, including marijuana (read about the cannabis and psychosis risk), stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin, methamphetamines, cocaine), LSD, psilocybin (mushrooms), PCP (angel dust), and K2 (synthetic marijuana/spice)
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Reactions to traumatic events
  • Extreme mood dysregulation, sometimes in the context of another mental health condition such as Borderline Personality Disorder or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • Sleep deprivation
  • A neurological condition (rarely)
  • Spiritual experiences: Some cultures seek spiritual experiences such as connecting with a higher power or hearing the voices of deceased relatives. Unusual experiences are not always or necessarily related to a mental health condition.

What Is the Treatment for Psychosis?

If you think that you might be experiencing psychotic symptoms, you are not alone. The first step is to tell someone. You can call CMHS during business hours to schedule an appointment with a counselor. If you need to talk with a counselor outside of business hours, call 617-627-3360 and follow the prompts to reach the Counselor on Call. In addition to meeting at CMHS, your clinician may help you make an appointment for a more detailed evaluation at a clinic such as CEDAR to get a clearer picture of what is going on and what steps you can take. If you are worried about telling a clinician, it can be helpful to start by sharing with a family member or friend.

One of the most helpful treatments is psychotherapy. There is a large body of research supporting the effectiveness of psychotherapy for psychosis, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). If psychotic experiences are greatly interfering with your life, a clinician may also recommend medications called antipsychotics, which include Abilify, Risperdal, and Zyprexa.

Learn More

Identifying and managing psychotic or unusual experiences:

Helping a friend, loved one, or student: