Psychological Disorders

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What are psychological disorders?

Psychological disorders, also referred to as mental disorders, are abnormalities of the mind that result in persistent behavior patterns that can seriously affect your day-to-day function and life. Many different psychological disorders have been identified and classified, including eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa; mood disorders, such as depression; personality disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder; psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia; sexual disorders, such as sexual dysfunction; and others. Multiple psychological disorders may exist in one person.

The specific causes of psychological disorders are not known, but contributing factors may include chemical imbalances in the brain, childhood experiences, heredity, illnesses, prenatal exposures, and stress. Some disorders, such as borderline personality and depression, occur more frequently in women. Others, such as intermittent explosive disorder and substance abuse, are more common in men. Still other disorders, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, affect men and women in roughly equal proportions.

When a person experiences mood or cognitive problems or behavioral issues for a long time, a psychological evaluation may be beneficial, and a diagnosis of a psychological disorder may follow. Treatment frequently involves psychotherapy to work on behaviors, skill development, and thought process. A person may be hospitalized for coexisting medical problems, serious complications, severe disorders, or substance abuse. Medications can be quite helpful for some psychological disorders.

Properly treated, people who have psychological disorders often improve; however, relapses are possible. Left untreated, some psychological problems can lead to academic, legal, social and work problems. Alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, suicide, and violent behavior are other potential complications.

Psychological disorders can have serious, even life-threating, complications. Seek immediate m edical care (call 911) for inability to care for one’s basic needs (food, water, shelter) or threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior.

Seek prompt medical care if you think you might have a psychological disorder or are being treated for one but symptoms recur or are persistent.

What are the symptoms of psychological disorders?

Symptoms of psychological disorders vary based on the specific disorder, but mood and behavioral symptoms are common. Symptoms can be chronic and relapsing. They can interfere with your ability to interact in society. Some psychological disorders can also cause physical symptoms. For example, panic attacks associated with anxiety disorders may have symptoms that look and feel like a heart attack. Somatoform disorders, conditions in which symptoms suggest a medical cause but none can be found, frequently involve symptoms of pain or achiness.

Common symptoms of psychological disorders

Psychological disorders can cause a variety of symptoms; common symptoms include:

  • Agitation, hostility or aggression

  • Alcohol or drug abuse

  • Alterations in energy levels

  • Anxiety

  • Confusion or disconnectedness

  • Erratic behavior

  • Irritability and mood changes

  • Perception or thought process disturbances (psychoses), such as hallucinations and delusions

  • Persistent or abrupt mood changes that can interfere with day-to-day life

  • Problem denial

  • Social withdrawal

Physical symptoms that may accompany psychological disorders

Psychological disorders may also be associated with physical symptoms including:

  • Inexplicable physical problems

  • Lethargy or malaise

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Weight and appetite changes

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, psychological disorders can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Being a danger to oneself or others, including threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior

  • Inability to care for one’s basic needs

  • Trauma, such as bone deformity, burns, eye injuries, and other injuries

What causes psychological disorders?

The causes of psychological disorders are not known, but a number of factors are thought to influence their development. These factors include chemical imbalances in the brain, childhood experiences, heredity, illnesses, prenatal exposures, and stress. Gender plays a role in some, but not all, psychological disorders.

What are the risk factors for psychological disorders?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing psychological disorders. Not all people with risk factors will get psychological disorders. Risk factors for psychological disorders include:

  • Abuse or neglect as a child
  • Childhood problems with temperament
  • Family or personal history of mental illness or substance abuse
  • Intelligence below normal
  • Low birth weight
  • Lower socioeconomic status
  • Parental absence, criminal activity, or substance abuse
  • Prenatal exposures, such as to alcohol or drugs
  • Significant medical conditions, such as cancer, chronic pain, and hypothyroidism
  • Social disadvantage
  • Stressful or traumatic life events
  • Substance abuse

How are psychological disorders treated?

The first step in the treatment of psychological disorders is recognizing that a problem exists. Often, people who have psychological disorders deny their problem and do not seek medical care for their symptoms. Regular medical care can be helpful because it allows a health care professional to provide early screening tests. Regular medical care also provides an opportunity for your health care professional to promptly evaluate symptoms and your risks for developing psychological disorders.

Treatment frequently involves psychotherapy to work on behaviors, skill development, and thought process. Initial hospitalization may be necessary for coexisting medical problems, serious complications, severe disorders, or substance abuse. Medications can be quite helpful for some personality disorders. Significant improvement can occur with proper treatment.

Common treatments for psychological disorders

Common treatments of psychological disorders include:

  • Antianxiety medications

  • Antidepressant medications to improve moods

  • Antipsychotic medications to treat disordered thought patterns and altered perceptions

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy to work on thought patterns and behavior

  • Family therapy to help develop support and understanding

  • Group therapy

  • Hospitalization for coexisting medical problems, serious complications, severe disorders, or substance abuse

  • Identification and treatment of coexisting conditions

  • Individual therapy

  • Mood-stabilizing medications

  • Psychodynamic therapy to work on discovering and understanding past issues and their relationship to current thoughts and behaviors

  • Support groups

  • Talk therapy

What you can do to improve your psychological disorders

In addition to seeking and receiving treatment, you may be able to improve your symptoms and decrease your risk of recurrence by:

  • Avoiding alcohol or illicit drug use

  • Avoiding caffeine or other stimulants

  • Eating on a regular schedule

  • Exercising regularly

  • Getting enough sleep

  • Keeping appointments and taking medications as directed

What are the potential complications of psychological disorders?

Complications of untreated or poorly controlled psychological disorders can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of psychological disorders include:

  • Adverse effects of treatment

  • Difficulties with the law, at work, in social environments, with relationships, and with finances

  • Increased risk of injury

  • Medical complications specific to behaviors associated with psychological disorders

  • Self-harm

  • Social isolation

  • Strained family relationships

  • Substance abuse

  • Suicide or violence

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 23
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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