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What are Negative Symptoms?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Negative symptoms are things that are present in healthy individuals but cannot be observed in a patient with mental health problems or a brain injury. They are clinical signs that can provide diagnostic clues, but are sometimes difficult to identify and cannot be used alone as a diagnostic tool. The term “negative symptoms” is most commonly associated with schizophrenia but these symptoms can also be observed with other mental health conditions like depression, as well as with certain types of brain injuries.

In people who have negative symptoms, they experience an absence or reduction in feelings and responses that may limit their ability to interact with the surrounding world. Negative symptoms can become debilitating and are sometimes the first signs of a mental illness that can be positively identified. In a person with depression, for instance, negative symptoms can contribute to behaviors that make it difficult to get out of bed in the morning, to complete tasks, or to spend time with people.

Common negative symptoms include social withdrawal, apathy, and blunted emotional responses, sometimes known as a flat effect. People can also have difficulty experiencing pleasure, even in tasks and activities they normally enjoy, a negative symptom known as anhedonia. In addition, limited communication in the form of stilted or short speech is a common negative symptom.

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In some individuals, the onset of such symptoms can be gradual, while in others it may be very sudden. Behavioral changes in someone who has not been diagnosed with a medical problem can be an indicator that something is wrong. In people with brain injuries, negative symptoms can be caused by damage to the areas of the brain that normally regulate emotions, speech, and pleasure. Individuals with mental illness experience such symptoms as a result of the chemical imbalances in their brains.

With treatment for the underlying cause, the symptoms are sometimes resolved. In other cases, they may become a permanent part of a patient's behavioral patterns and patients may need to make adjustments to learn to cope. Other people sometimes feel nervous around individuals with negative symptoms and things like limited emotional expression can result in awkward social interactions as well as confusion, because the patient may not be able to clearly express emotions.

Some people with mental illness and brain injuries have difficulty reading others, while some do not. It is important to be aware that even if someone has limited communication abilities or appears disinterested in the surrounding world, that person can be acutely aware of what other people are saying.

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