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What does schizophrenia feel like?

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SymptomsCausesTreatmentPreventionDiagnosisRisk factorsSummary
Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that often develops during early adulthood. It can result in delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thinking.
Medically reviewed by Yalda Safai, MD, MPH
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on July 25, 2023

Schizophrenia is a long-term mental health condition affecting how you think, feel, and perceive reality. It can often cause symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), schizophrenia affects less than 1% of the U.S. population. The condition accounts for around 50% of people who are in hospital for mental health reasons worldwide.

While schizophrenia is incurable, it is a treatable condition. If you think you may be at risk of developing the condition, it can help to be able to recognize how it feels to have schizophrenia. This will help you receive effective treatment earlier to prevent the condition from progressing.

Schizophrenia can cause changes to your day-to-day life, mood, thinking patterns, and behavior.

Some common early signs of schizophrenia include:

  • social withdrawal
  • decline in academic or work performance
  • unusual beliefs or thoughts
  • suspiciousness
  • difficulty organizing thoughts and expressing them clearly
  • emotional changes like unusual emotional responses ranging from flat affect (lack of emotional expression) to inappropriate or exaggerated emotional reactions
  • lack of motivation
  • reduced personal grooming and self-care
  • difficulty concentrating

Symptoms

Female sitting in lotus position with her head bowed and arms extended in front of her.
Photography by Mayur Kakade/Getty Images

If you have schizophrenia, you may start to notice symptoms during your teenage years. People most often receive diagnoses between the ages of 16–30 years.

Schizophrenia affects everyone differently, but certain symptoms can be common. These include the following:

  • delusions and fixed beliefs that will not change despite conflicting evidence
  • hallucinations that include smell, sight, hearing, and feeling things that are not there
  • poor memory
  • slow movements, such as slow walking

Episodes of psychosis are often the trigger for someone to seek help and receive a diagnosis for schizophrenia. Looking out for more subtle symptoms, like poor memory, can help you receive effective treatment and prevent your symptoms from worsening.

Doctors categorize these symptoms, and less typical ones, into three key types. These include the following:

  • Psychotic symptoms: These are changes to the way a person thinks and experiences the world around them, often losing their sense of reality. Symptoms include hallucinations and delusions.
  • Negative symptoms: Loss of motivation, interest, or enjoyment of activities that typically bring you joy are all negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Someone experiencing negative symptoms may show low energy levels and avoid social interaction.
  • Cognitive symptoms: These can include problems with maintaining concentration and attention, as well as having difficulty processing information. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), cognitive symptoms are some of the best predictors of how well a person with schizophrenia can function during day-to-day activities.

Causes

No one is entirely certain about what causes schizophrenia. Environmental changes to your brain chemistry from life events that cause trauma or malnutrition can increase your risk of developing schizophrenia. Infection during pregnancy may also result in an increased risk of schizophrenia in children.

Researchers note that your family history and the genes you inherit from your parents and grandparents may play a role in schizophrenia. For example, if two parents have schizophrenia, there is a 40% chance that their child will also go on to develop the condition.

An NIH study from 2016 notes that one gene has the biggest influence on the development of schizophrenia. This is the complement component 4 gene, or C4. As research continues, it will hopefully become clear whether this gene can increase your chance of developing the condition.  

Treatment

There are different types of treatment available for people with schizophrenia, including prescription medications and behavioral and nutritional therapies. A healthcare professional can help you find the best treatment plan for you and your needs.

Medication

Typically, doctors recommend antipsychotic medications for managing schizophrenia. Depending on your symptoms, a doctor may suggest other medications alongside antipsychotics.

These can include:

Antipsychotic medications work by adjusting the levels of a certain neurotransmitter in your brain called dopamine. These medications can help manage psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. They typically take several days or weeks to start working.

Examples of these medications include:

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Complementary treatments

Some non-medical treatments can help manage symptoms of schizophrenia. Typically, healthcare professionals recommend complementary therapies alongside traditional medications.

These include:

  • Diet: A review from 2018 states how certain vitamins and minerals can help reduce many different symptoms of schizophrenia. As people with schizophrenia may often find it difficult to care for themselves and have a balanced diet, they are more likely to become deficient in certain nutrients. Certain vitamins can help with this, including:
    • folic acid
    • vitamin C
    • vitamin B
    • vitamin D
    • vitamin E
  • Yoga therapy: Yoga therapy can be used in addition to medication and can be effective in helping reduce mood changes and cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia. Researchers believe it could help increase the amount of the calming hormone, oxytocin, in your brain.

Prevention

As schizophrenia has a genetic component to its development, it can be difficult to prevent it. On the other hand, having a family history of schizophrenia does not mean you will go on to get it.

According to research from 2018, taking part in treatment early on in your diagnosis of schizophrenia can improve your overall health outcomes. This is especially important within the first 5 years of your first episode. This is because most changes to your brain from schizophrenia happen during this time.

Following the treatment plan that your doctor suggests will reduce your symptoms and frequency of episodes. Complementary therapies and activities like yoga and physical activity can also help.

Diagnosis

Diagnoses of schizophrenia can begin with speaking with a healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist. There is no single test used to determine if you have schizophrenia.

At your appointment, you should expect to answer questions about your medical history, your family’s medical history, and your current state of mental health.

A healthcare professional will likely perform the following tests:

Symptoms of schizophrenia can be similar to the effects of certain drugs and mirror symptoms of other mental health conditions. So it is important to be open and honest about your lifestyle and any substance use if relevant.

To receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia, you need to experience at least two of the following symptoms for at least a month:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • disorganized speech or behavior

Risk factors

Your family history and genetic makeup are the most significant indicators for developing schizophrenia.

However, your environment and lifestyle may have some influence on people who are genetically predisposed to develop the condition. For example, the following may trigger specific symptoms:

  • malnutrition
  • high stress
  • substance use
  • viral infections
  • trauma

Summary

Schizophrenia is a chronic condition that can seriously affect your day-to-day life if you do not receive proper treatment. In severe cases, it can cause you to socially isolate and lose track of your reality because of sensory hallucinations.

Sticking to your personal treatment plan, and going for regular check-ups with a psychiatrist will help you manage your symptoms.

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