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An Overview of PTSD and Psychotic Symptoms

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Updated September 23, 2011

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In general, people with PTSD exhibit intrusive thoughts and memories, avoidance of trauma reminders, emotional numbing, and high levels of anxious arousal. These are all cardinal symptoms of PTSD. However, some people with PTSD also experience odd perceptual experiences, or symptoms that generally would be considered to be part of a psychosis. You might be surprised to find that many people with PTSD experience some psychotic symptoms. In fact, this co-occurrence is common enough that some mental health professionals have developed specialized treatments for people with both PTSD and psychotic symptoms.

The Relationship Between PTSD and Psychotic Symptoms

As indicated above, a substantial percentage of people with PTSD may also experience some psychotic symptoms. However, it is important to remember that just because you experience psychotic symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia. In fact, studies of PTSD and psychotic symptoms have generally found that people with PTSD only experience a subset of psychotic symptoms. 

What Is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is one of the most common psychotic disorders. Research has shown that many people with schizophrenia also have histories of traumatic exposure and may also exhibit symptoms of PTSD. This article presents some information on schizophrenia, as well as information on how schizophrenia is diagnosed.

Negative Psychotic Symptoms

As stated above, just because someone with PTSD is experiencing psychotic symptoms, it does not necessarily mean that they have a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia. It is possible that the person is only experiencing negative or positive symptoms of psychosis. Psychotic symptoms are divided into two categories: negative or positive symptoms. Negative symptoms refer to the absence of some experience (for example, emotions). This article lists common negative psychotic symptoms.

Positive Psychotic Symptoms

This article presents information on psychotic symptoms that fall into the other category -- positive psychotic symptoms. Unlike negative psychotic symptoms, psychotic symptoms refer to the presence of odd perceptual experiences, such as hallucinations. Research has shown that positive psychotic symptoms in particular are common among some people with PTSD.

Flashbacks and Dissociation in PTSD

Many people with PTSD experience flashbacks and periods of dissociation, particularly when under high levels of distress. Although these are not considered psychotic symptoms, they may share some features with psychotic symptoms. In particular, during a severe flashback, a person may see, hear, or smell things that other people cannot experience -- consistent with a hallucination. Flashbacks and dissociation can be very frightening experiences. They may make a person feel as though they do not have control over their body and experiences, and the unpredictable nature of these symptoms can be frightening. This article presents information on and some ways of coping with dissociation and flashbacks.

Treatment of People with PTSD and Psychotic Disorders

Many people are hesitant to treat someone with PTSD with traditional PTSD treatments (for example, exposure therapy) when that person also is experiencing psychotic symptoms. This may stem from a lack of training on the part of the therapist when it comes to dealing with the co-occurrence of PTSD and psychotic symptoms or from concerns that exposure therapy may actually make the psychotic symptoms worse. However, some mental health professionals have recognized the need for treatments that take into account both PTSD and psychotic symptoms. 

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