What Is an Acute Psychotic Disorder?

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  • Written By: Nicole Etolen
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2019
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Acute psychotic disorder is a psychotic break that comes on suddenly and lasts only a brief period of time. The time frame can be as short as a day and as long as about a month. Unlike a chronic psychotic disorder, which is typically caused by a near constant imbalance of chemicals in the brain, an acute psychotic disorder often has a trigger that causes the temporary break from reality.

In many cases of acute psychotic disorder, patients already have an underlying mental disorder, often anxiety or panic disorder. Researchers believe that one of the major contributing factors to a sudden psychotic break is an inability to deal with stress. Those with anxiety or panic disorder are already experiencing a greater stress level brought on by minor everyday situations, and therefore are more predisposed to becoming overwhelmed by larger stressful events, such as a death in the family or loss of a job.


Symptoms of an acute psychotic disorder are similar to those in long-term psychotic disorders. Hallucinations are one of the most common symptoms, and can occur as either visual hallucinations, such as seeing something or someone that is not there, or auditory hallucinations, such as hearing voices inside the head. Delusions, including paranoia, often accompany the hallucinations. Patients may also exhibit uncharacteristic behavior or involuntary body movements such as jerks or repetitive motions. In order to diagnose a patient with acute psychotic disorder, at least one of these symptoms must be present for less than a month.

There are numerous potential causes of acute psychotic disorder. Some psychiatrists believe that it could be a signal that the patient is on the verge of developing schizophrenia, a lifelong psychotic disorder. Postpartum psychosis, a rare condition that occurs in a small number of women after childbirth, can also cause a brief psychotic break. Even in those with a preexisting mental disorder, stress is almost always the main contributing factor to the psychotic break.

Treating acute psychotic disorder typically involves the short-term use of antipsychotic medications similar to those used to treat schizophrenia and long-term psychotic disorders. Although the medications are usually enough to end the episode, patients are often left with overwhelming emotions regarding their break, especially if they harmed themselves or others while suffering from the disorder. They may also worry about the possibility the episode recurring in the future. Psychotherapy or group therapy can help patients cope with what happened and learn skills to avoid it from happening in the future.


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