She was carried into the hospital, bruised and battered. Her eyes were wide as she screamed and cried. She was convinced that they were after her. They spoke to her through the walls. There was no place that was safe. These may look like the signs of schizophrenia and mental illness, but this woman is not psychotic. Not, that is, unless she has methamphetamine in her system.
What is Psychosis?
Psychosis is a disconnection between sensory signals and the brain. Normally, sensory experiences like sight, sound, and touch, are interpreted by the brain. During psychosis, the brain concocts scenarios that are not backed up by stimulus in the physical world. Instead of seeing, hearing and touching things in the environment, the brain registers things that are no there. Psychosis can take many forms but can be classified as either hallucinations or delusions. Hallucinations occur when we see, hear or feel something that isn’t there. This could include hearing voices, seeing imaginary people, or having strange unexplainable sensations. Delusions are beliefs that are not grounded in reality. Someone experiencing delusions may believe external forces are controlling them, insignificant remarks or symbols hold important personal significance, or believing they have special super-human powers.
Meth psychosis can mimic paranoid schizophrenia almost exactly. A person may experience irrational fear or think something or someone is trying to harm them. They may hear and see things that aren’t there. They may have delusions or exhibit violent behavior. Essentially, someone who is experiencing meth psychosis is not able to distinguish whether their perceptions are rooted in reality. This can mean danger for them and those around them.
Symptoms of Meth Psychosis include
Hallucinations: Sensing things that don’t exist
Paranoia: Suspicions and fear that others want to cause harm
Delusions: Believing things that aren’t true
Hyper-vigilance: Heightened alertness and sensitivity to surroundings
Also called ice bugs, or crank bugs, a common symptom of meth psychosis is meth mites. When someone experiences this, they think insects are crawling on or beneath their skin. As a result they pick and scratch. This can cause serious skin infections and scarring.
Someone often exhibits pre-psychotic symptoms before experiencing a psychotic episode. Pre-psychotic behavior can include irrational moods and ideas. Someone may feel that normal events contain hidden messages. Perhaps an individual may feel that others are working in tandem to disturb or influence them. These are called “ideas of reference.”
Who Suffers from Meth Psychosis?
Meth psychosis affects 40% of those who use meth and someone who uses methamphetamine is two- three times more likely to experience psychosis. Usually, meth psychosis occurs while the drug is still in someone’s system. Chronic meth users can are eleven times more likely to experience psychosis and can suffer episodes months or even years after taking methamphetamine.
How Does Meth Cause Psychosis?
The presence of methamphetamine causes the brain to release copious amounts of dopamine. Dopamine creates relaxed inhibitions and intense pleasure. When the body senses an overabundance of dopamine, it releases GABA to bring back chemical stability. With repeated overloads of both dopamine and GABA, the brain protects itself by becoming less and less responsive to these chemicals by inhibiting the re-uptake sites. Many believe that this GABA “burnout” can cause the brain to misinterpret sensory impulses. This causes confusion and psychosis.
Sleep deprivation can also be factor in the onset of meth psychosis. One of the symptoms of meth use is an inability to sleep, often for days. According to Frontiers in Psychiatry, “Psychotic symptoms develop with increasing time awake, from simple visual/somatosensory misperceptions to hallucinations and delusions, ending in a condition resembling acute psychosis.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6048360/
Treatment for Meth Psychosis
While the symptoms of meth psychosis are dire and dangerous, the good news is that the damage isn’t permanent. With cessation of the drug and a period of rest, psychosis ends and the body is returned to health. Drug addiction treatment that utilizes psychotherapy can help users understand the reasons they use drugs. Relapse prevention classes and a sober social network can strengthen someone’s resolve to stay sober and live a healthy, meaningful life. Psychotic episodes can be a thing of the past.