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What Is a Psychotic Break?

By Bethany Keene
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A psychotic break occurs when an individual experiences symptoms of psychosis, either for the first time or after a long period without symptoms. This can be precipitated by drug use, a major life change such as the death of a close family member or friend, or a previously diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness, which frequently has genetic or biological factors as well. A psychotic break does not always appear the same in each person experiencing them, but it is characterized by an inability to distinguish reality. Individuals frequently suffer from delusions or hallucinations, which can potentially lead to violence. Others will experience major depressive episodes.

Generally, the psychotic episodes associated with a psychotic break do not last long, particularly if proper treatment from physicians and mental health professionals is sought. Though these episodes can be associated with schizophrenia, this is not necessarily the case, and doctors will be able to determine if the psychosis is indicative of schizophrenia, or if it is simply an individual episode. It is very important to seek medical attention as soon as possible for mental health issues like this, to ensure they do not progress and become worse, or start occurring more frequently.

Substance abuse is one of the most common causes of a psychotic break. It can occur while drugs or alcohol are still being used, or it can occur after substance use has stopped, as part of withdrawal symptoms. Significant life changes can also cause psychosis in an individual who might be more genetically prone to it, or who has been experiencing extremely high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. For instance, a death of a close family member can lead to a psychotic break, as can the sudden loss of a job, or a breakup with a partner. In addition, individuals who suffer from a mental illness such as severe depression or bipolar disorder might be more prone to experiencing this as well.

The symptoms of a psychotic break can vary. Some people might become aggressive and violent, while others will become extremely withdrawn or even suicidal, as in a major depressive episode. Some people might experience manic episodes where they feel as if they have an impossibly high amount of energy. An individual will frequently experience delusions or hallucinations that are impossible for him or her to separate from what is really happening, and may also not be able to communicate very well. These hallucinations may be visual, auditory, or both. Recognizing symptoms that seem out of the ordinary is important to identifying a psychotic break.

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Discussion Comments
By anon996287 — On Aug 06, 2016

Re: post 11. My family is dealing with a similar situation with my 16 year old son. I've taken him for treatment via Kaiser Permanente. Unfortunately it has not helped. Doing research on my I've found Kaiser mental health's track record is abysmal. I'd be interested in a follow up on your son. My heart goes out to you. This is the difficult thing we've had to deal with as a family.

By anon994095 — On Jan 13, 2016

Regarding Post 13: Have you ever read about the madness of King George? He was the king of England during the Revolutionary War, the results of which created the United States. In the King's madness, one of the symptoms was nonstop talking. There was a book about him and his family published in 2014 or 2015. I read it from cover to cover. It was fascinating.

By anon975114 — On Oct 24, 2014

My mom's psychotic break lasted for a full month. A full month of mindless chatter. We called it "sleep-talking". She talked so much that I thought she would lose her voice permanently. I know years of stress and other stuff led her to this. But I've yet to come across any other experiences that are similar. And no one we took her to would help or provide any information as to what to do about it other than "mood stabilizers" and "anti-psychotics," which had no affect on her whatsoever. She's done this "break" for five consecutive years now. The same month, August, every time. Why?

By anon928537 — On Jan 28, 2014

Back in 1991, I went to school with a kid who started doing drugs because his brother was in a gang and him and two others in the gang were doing drugs and introduced him to it. He had a psychotic break. He would come to school high, but then he would always appear angry,and sometimes kids were concerned he would become violent. Eventually these psychotic episodes ended.

By anon336407 — On May 28, 2013

Many here need to be educated. My son is 16 and just had one. They are real and to family and friends, they are scary and truly a shock. We're still not sure what caused his yet. He was having problems in school, became reserved, lost a lot of weight and never mentioned any problems, then in about a week he suddenly went into one. He was delirious, had hallucinations, didn't know who I was and thought his dad was a cop. It was a complete loss of reality.

By deeman — On May 06, 2013

I went through one last year in early 2012. I has no idea I was slipping into a psychotic break as I was experiencing grandiose delusions. I even had family members convinced I was a prophet much like other prophets in history.

Since, in all my years, I'd never had any mental illness or eccentric signs, they all thought it was possible I had reached a high spiritual level. I even started using hallucinogens such as salvia and marijuana to increase my level of spirituality and had mushrooms cultivated and ready, when disaster hit.

While going to a grocery store to buy beer, I had a full mental breakdown and started pushing beers to homeless men waiting outside. I did this a total of two times, going in the store and coming out. When the manager approached me, I backed my truck up and waved my hand at him. That was enough for the cops to charge me with second degree robbery, and bail of first degree robbery of $100k; they had a field day with me.

The breakdown caused me a year of legal misery and $60k in legal rehab and lawyer's fees. Since I was never involved in anything criminal, my family had no idea we needed a criminal attorney to deal with this mess. We hired a personal injury lawyer we knew from a previous incident and he did absolutely nothing to show I was psychotic.

I ended up being charged with a reduced felony of commercial burglary (had to lie and say yes. I planned on going in there to steal beers, even though I had a fat bank account and was an educated man with a career). It was either that or I had to face second degree robbery charges at trial, and with that attorney I was very scared to go forward.

My journey into the spiritual world started with a great feeling of euphoria and well being and turned into the worst nightmare I have ever experience in my life. I do not wish this upon even my worst enemy.

By anon329720 — On Apr 11, 2013

My mom had a psychotic break and it was one of the scariest things I've ever experienced in my life. She was convinced people were listening to her as she talked and that her phone was being tapped.

My father had to file for emergency custody of us because of how severe it was. She would wake us up in the middle of the night screaming that my dad was cheating on her and she found e-mails and needed the laptop charger to prove it. When we gave her the chance to prove it, she couldn't find the evidence. She would also shake her head and jerk frequently throughout the course of the day. I would never wish this upon someone, or for someone to have to watch someone go through it. It was the worst experience of my young life.

By anon325844 — On Mar 18, 2013

A psychotic break feels like you are having a nightmare. It is an awful experience. I believe from my experience that it is the manifestation of all of your fears brought to the surface.

By anon295857 — On Oct 08, 2012

With the right extreme doses of anxiety, stress and depression, especially if it has been manifesting for some time, a normally stable person can have a mental breakdown to the point of not being able to tell reality from imagination. I speak from experience. For your mind to allow this to happen, one must feel worthless and meaningless. At that point, you become vulnerable to outside influences.

By KoiwiGal — On Jun 11, 2012

@browncoat - I'm not sure I agree with that. I mean, aside from the fact that it's almost impossible to really prove that someone actually had a real psychotic break, I still don't think it's an excuse for crime.

Even if you did think you had to kill someone to save the world (and that's a very unlikely scenario... most people just get extremely angry or depressed rather than construct a functioning delusion like that) you should still be able to discuss that with someone else, or stop and think it through, or whatever.

I understand that sometimes life becomes too much for a person, or maybe they have been put on the wrong medication, but people should be able to recognize that something is not right before it gets to a nervous breakdown.

By browncoat — On Jun 10, 2012

@Mor - Well, I don't think it feels like anything at all. Just more depression, or more of the same. I mean, you aren't aware that it's happening, because if you were, you wouldn't be going on with it. Whatever your psychotic disorder is telling you is real, seems completely real to you, the same as the computer you're writing on, or the ground beneath your feet does right now.

Which is why it's a defense, in court and elsewhere, to prove that the person really did have a psychotic break. Because if you truly believe that, say, you've been told you have to kill someone in order to save the world, then you can't really be blamed for doing it. You can be locked up for everyone's protection, of course, but you shouldn't really be punished for something like that. You couldn't help it, your brain was malfunctioning.

By Mor — On Jun 10, 2012

I've always kind of wondered what a psychotic break would feel like. I mean, I don't want to experience one of course, but the idea of it just seems so alien to me.

I've been through some pretty tough times and I've also been very depressed in my life. No where near on the level of some people, though, and I understand that. Sometimes I've daydreamed about how things could be better, or even talked to myself.

But even at my lowest, I've always had the ability to distinguish what was a fantasy and what was reality. Even when I didn't want to, when I wanted to escape into the fantasy, I wasn't ever truly unaware that I was imagining things.

I have always wondered what it must be like for the mind to just let go completely like that and start to believe in things that aren't there. I hope I never have a mental breakdown and find out, but it would certainly be an interesting, if awful, experience.

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