What Disorganized Behavior Could Reveal About Your Mental State

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated March 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Disorganized behavior can take various forms, depending on its cause. This term can refer to relatively harmless disorganization as a personality trait, as a symptom of a mental health condition like ADHD or depression, or as part of clinically categorized inconsistent behaviors characteristic of schizophrenia. See below to learn more about the various definitions and respective causes of this type of behavior to understand what it might mean if you notice it in yourself or a loved one.

Are disorganized behaviors interfering with your quality of life?

Defining disorganized behavior

There are two main ways to define disorganized behavior. The first is the more colloquial definition referring to difficulties staying organized or motivated enough to adequately perform daily life tasks. This can range from someone who naturally keeps a messy home, doesn’t always make it to appointments on time, and frequently misplaces things to someone who has trouble keeping a safe, clean living space for themselves and engaging in basic hygiene because of mental health challenges. 

The other definition of disorganized behavior is more specific and clinical. The American Psychological Association defines this as “behavior that is self-contradictory or inconsistent” and is typically associated with schizophrenia. Examples of this behavior can include things like:

  • Unusual actions, potentially ranging from childlike silliness to violence and aggression
  • Unpredictable and often unprovoked agitation
  • Inappropriate emotional reactions, such as laughing after a tragedy
  • Disorganized speech (trouble staying on topic, jumping from one to another)
  • Garbled, unintelligible speech, in severe cases
  • Excessive and/or unusual movements which may or may not be repetitive 
  • Not responding when spoken to or asked a question

Causes of disorganized behavior

As the manifestations of disorganized behavior can vary widely, so can the causes.

Some people are simply a bit more disorganized day to day, a personality trait that’s generally harmless. Others may display elements of this type of disorganization in their personal lives that are due to a mental health condition.

For instance, someone with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might have trouble keeping track of assignments, finishing projects, or maintaining an organized living space due to “deficits in persistence” caused by the condition, per a 2020 study. Or, someone experiencing grief, a depressive episode of bipolar disorder, moderate to severe depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, could find it difficult to tidy up or properly care for their basic needs as a result of symptoms like fatigue, loss of interest, and sadness. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

When it comes to disorganized behavior in the clinical sense, it can be a sign of schizophrenia, as mentioned above. Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. While experiencing symptoms, a person with schizophrenia may appear to others as if they’ve lost touch with reality, which can make daily functioning and personal relationships extremely difficult when untreated. Disorganized behavior in schizophrenia usually takes the form of thoughts, speech, and behaviors that are illogical or incoherent to others. It may occur alongside other symptoms of this illness such as delusions, hallucinations, and/or catatonic behavior.

Solutions for disorganized behavior

Disorganized behavior by any definition can interfere with a person’s daily functioning, so interventions are often helpful. The type of intervention that will work best, of course, depends on the cause of the behavior. 

When learned or a result of personality

Some people learn disorganized behaviors from their upbringing, while others naturally exhibit some relatively harmless levels of them due to natural personality factors. If this is your situation and these behaviors are causing you problems with daily functioning, there are a few solutions you can try to sharpen your organizational skills. One option is working with a life coach or a therapist. They can help you put systems in place that can help you stay on track. For those who prefer self-learning, there are a plethora of self-help books, videos, and podcasts out there related to organization that you may find useful.

When caused by mental health concerns besides schizophrenia

As detailed above, there are a variety of mental health concerns and conditions that could lead to a person having trouble with organization in their daily life. The best type of support for these challenges depends on their cause. In general, however, a trained therapist can usually help individuals address the mental health concerns they may be facing. Some form of therapy is the first-line recommended treatment for most mental health conditions, so connecting with a provider can be a helpful first step toward living a more organized life. They can help with things like:

  • Coping with frustration or shame related to disorganized tendencies
  • Creating systems to help you be more organized
  • Learning to recognize and shift distorted thoughts that may be contributing to distress
  • Providing a safe, nonjudgmental space where you can express your emotions
  • Discovering healthy coping mechanisms for difficult feelings or symptoms

When caused by schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a serious mental health condition that can result in harm to the individual or those around them if left untreated. Treatment can also significantly improve the individual’s functioning and quality of life, and many who seek and stick with treatment to manage their condition go on to live happy, fulfilling lives. Treatment for schizophrenia usually consists of a combination of antipsychotic medications and some form(s) of therapy. Both can help address disorganized behaviors. 

Antipsychotic medications can help reduce the frequency and intensity of psychotic behaviors, including disorganized behaviors. Therapy can help a person develop a robust set of coping mechanisms so they can be better equipped to manage symptoms of their illness. For example:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy can help an individual learn to recognize distorted thoughts and shift them in order to adjust their behaviors
  • Interpersonal and social rhythm therapy can help a person put systems in place in their daily lives to reduce disruptions as a result of symptoms, manage stress, and adhere to routines related to medication and other treatments
  • Social skills training is a way to empower an individual with schizophrenia to communicate their emotions and needs in a healthy way to improve their functioning, relationships, and overall well-being
  • Cognitive remediation interventions tend to focus on supporting individuals in sharpening their executive functioning and attention for better daily-life outcomes
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Are disorganized behaviors interfering with your quality of life?

Seeking support for any type of disorganized behavior

If you’re experiencing symptoms of a serious mental health condition like schizophrenia, it’s recommended that you seek the support of a doctor or psychiatrist right away. If you’ve been treated for schizophrenia and are looking for additional support, if you’re looking for support in managing ADHD, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness, or if you’re simply looking for help in becoming more organized, meeting with a therapist can be beneficial, as outlined above. 

Not everyone can get in-person therapy, whether due to a lack of providers in their area or difficulties related to transportation. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a viable alternative. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of your home. Research suggests that online therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy in many cases, so you can typically feel confident in choosing whichever format seems best for you. See below for client reviews of BetterHelp counselors if you’re interested in online therapy.

Counselor reviews

“Samantha is amazingly kind, attentive, and nonjudgemental. I had a lot of anxiety about starting therapy because I didn't know the kind of person I'd be talking to but I couldn't have been luckier. She hears every word I say and really cares about making a genuine connection and helping me learn more about my mind and organize my thoughts in a productive and therapeutic way. The world can be overwhelming and frustrating but she has been a consistent safe haven for me and my mind every week. I can't thank her enough.”

“Does great job. I needed help dealing with career stress. He is helping me think about managing work flow, organization, even sleep habits to lower my overall stress. Had never worked with a counselor before and not what I expected, but what I needed.”

Takeaway

Disorganized behavior can mean easily losing track of things and having an unorganized space, which may occur as a result of personality or as a result of a mental health condition like ADHD or depression. It can also refer to inconsistent and unusual behavior typically associated with schizophrenia. If you or a loved one is displaying signs of schizophrenia, it’s recommended that you seek medical attention right away. If you’re looking for support in addressing general disorganization and/or another mental health condition, you may benefit from meeting with a therapist in person or online.
Target disruptive behavior in therapy
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