Does “Stress-Induced Psychosis” Exist?

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

It is no surprise that today, we live in a fast-paced world. Work hours seem to be lengthening, responsibilities and duties continue to pile up, and at the same time, mental health seems to be declining. Anyone living the 'nine-to-five" life understands the sometimes-overwhelming levels of stress that can be brought on by this "work first, fun later" lifestyle. This modern pace of living can even lead us to worry that all this stress will negatively affect our health.

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It doesn't take much of an observant eye to notice all the studies which point out all the harmful effects of long-term stress. From weight gain to depression, stress can bring about a whole host of problems down the line, and this can lead us to wonder how far-reaching stress truly is. Can stress lead to a 'mental break'? Does stress-induced psychosis exist?

What Is Psychosis?

Before we start to explore questions of how it develops, we need to know what psychosis is. The National Institute of Mental Health defines the term psychosis as commonly "used to describe conditions that affect the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality." An individual who is experiencing psychosis may experience delusions and have an overall disconnection with reality. Additionally, psychosis is not a disease on its own, but a symptom of deeper causes. A few other further examples of symptoms are:

  • Hallucinations
  • Confusing thoughts
  • Social withdrawal
  • Decrease in self-awareness
  • Delusions
  • Other imagined disturbances
  • High levels of stress, fear, and confusion

What Causes Psychosis

The interesting and scary part of psychosis is that we are not quite sure of what causes it and why it arises in specific individuals. We do know that other mental health issues and drugs can typically cause it, but there are other areas which are slightly more speculative - one of them is stress.

Some of the more conventionally understood causes of psychosis may be psychological conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, severe depression, and others. We also do know that genetics has a role to play in increasing the probability of psychosis, so, if your parents had psychotic breaks in the past - you are more at risk than the average person.

Researchers are still not sure how hereditary this disorder is. General medical conditions such as syphilis, Alzheimer's disease, AIDS, brain tumors, and more are known to trigger psychosis in some individuals possibly. Additionally, psychosis can be brought on by substance abuse, whether through withdrawal or from direct drug use, anything from extreme heavy drinking to methamphetamine use has a chance of leading to psychosis. All this being said, stress can increase your chance of experiencing a psychotic state, but more on that in the next section.

Stress-Induced Psychosis

This leads us on to our initial question: is there such a thing as stress-induced psychosis? Yes, but it's more complicated than that. There are many risk factors for psychosis; we went over a few earlier: mental health disorders, other health issues, drug use, etc.

With so many risk factors, it can sometimes be challenging to determine which one caused the psychotic episode to arise, and which had only a minor role, or if they all factored in equally. Not to mention the fact that it is often a combination of these risk factors that are present in someone who is experiencing psychosis, confusing the situation even more.

So, determining that psychosis is caused by just stress alone is a more complicated matter than it first appears. However, we can say that exposure to extreme stress can put an individual more at risk of psychosis.

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To further demonstrate this claim, Dr. Nicholas Stefanis and his coauthors found that "stress exposure at army induction was associated with an increased level of psychotic symptoms" (Nicholas et al. 1651). Severe cases of stress-overload can lead to states of psychosis, especially if paired with one of the other risk factors mentioned earlier.

Now, you may have been thinking: "how does stress lead you an episode of psychosis?" Our minds can only handle so much if we already have a lot on our plates, stacking up the stress can tip the scales and lead to a hard crash.

Something else to complicate things is the existence of the brief psychotic disorder, which is a psychotic episode triggered exclusively by extreme stress or trauma and is, interestingly enough, more present in people who are in their 20s and 30s. This is separate than the traditional disorder of psychosis primarily due to its causes and the infrequency of its appearance in individuals. The occurrence of one of these episodes may be singular and could have no long-term effects; however, you should still proceed with caution and more closely monitor your mental health after a brief psychotic state.

Diagnosis

Psychosis comes in many variations of severity, and not all instances of psychosis are extremely obvious and identifiable, they can be more subtle. However, there are psychiatric evaluations which doctors can employ to better identify if the individual truly is experiencing stress-induced psychosis and measuring the effects of the symptoms more accurately and objectively. If you, or someone you know, is exhibiting the symptoms discussed earlier, you should contact a medical professional immediately.

Other physicals or exams can be used to identify possible causes of the psychosis. Stress-induced psychosis can be explicitly diagnosed by noting the high levels of stress present in someone's life before and during their psychotic episode.

Reducing Your Risk

All of this may seem a little scary, stress is so commonly experienced and expected in our society that it is often worn as a badge of honor. But reducing your stress is going to be essential to not only avoiding stress induced-psychosis but also just keeping healthy in general. As mentioned in the beginning, stress can lead to all kinds of detrimental issues with your health, so you'll want to try to limit stress as best as you can. Some simple options for limiting your stress are:

  • Exercise - the flow of serotonin alone can be a great way to combat stress, not to mention all the beneficial health effects.
  • Meditation - Meditation is on the rise, and for a good reason - it is excellent for dealing with stress and difficult situations. Once thought as something that is only done in the East, more and more westerners are turning to meditation for help with improving mental health as well as overall wellness and happiness.
  • A proper diet - Along with exercise, food is another pillar of health and is essential to keeping your mind and body working well.
  • Sleep - Another cornerstone of health that is especially vital to your mental health; proper sleep is vital to make sure you are fully functioning and strong.

It is vital that you seek professional help if you are feeling, especially overwhelmed with stress and anxiety. You do not want to wait until stress-induced psychosis hits to seek help. Contacting a counselor or therapist can do wonders for your mental health and is especially important if you are struggling through a more difficult time.

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Do keep in mind that there is a difference between good and bad stress (eustress vs. distress). Good stress is exercise, trying to win in a game, anxiety before a performance or speech. These are all regular instances of stress and won't lead to any health-related issues if kept short-term. Some cases of distress are longer-term anxieties, such as money problems, relationship problems, fear, and more. These examples are not just longer-term, but they have arisen from more already negative causes. Eustress will not lead to psychosis, while distress can. In fact, a healthy dose of eustress can help to combat the more problematic distress in your life.

Treatment

Stress induced-psychosis is not a permanent or incurable problem by any means; there are tools out there to help you work through any mental health issues someone may have. Psychotherapy, medication, and supervision may all be needed to help someone work through their psychotic episodes. For stress induced psychosis specifically, talking to a therapist can help you to build up your stress tolerance while simultaneously assisting you to eliminate it. The most permanent solution to stress-induced psychosis is not going to be medication, but rather by working through your problems through therapy and reflective thought. Just remember: it is better to seek help and have it be nothing too worrying than to ignore a problem and have it dig itself in deeper later.

Talking With BetterHelp

It can be challenging to know where to start looking when searching for professional help with your mental health concerns. You get convenience, comfort, and quality care with a few clicks. If you need assistance, don't hesitate to reach out to BetterHelp to get to help you need. Furthermore, BetterHelp has a wide variety of resources for both learning as well as treatment, and if you are still curious about psychosis and its various forms, there are many resources available here and through other resources.

 

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