Schizophrenia Symptoms

"The consumer who lives with schizophrenia is more than a complex presentation of signs and symptoms. Not only does this person experience the internal effects of the illness, they also feel the interaction between their internal physical and psychological experience, and the external social world" (Paul, a Mental Health Professional).

There are a number of signs and symptoms that are characteristic of schizophrenia, however, the expression of these symptoms varies greatly from one individual to another. No one symptom is common to all people. As such, diagnosis and treatment must always be tailored to the individual's unique experience of schizophrenia.

The symptoms of schizophrenia can be divided into a number of groups:

  • Positive symptoms, for example, hallucinations, delusions and disorganised thinking 
  • Negative symptoms, for example, loss of motivation and ability to experience pleasure in life
  • Cognitive symptoms, for example difficulty in concentrating or planning
  • Mood and anxiety - depression and anxiety is common

Positive symptoms

The positive symptoms of schizophrenia (also referred to as 'psychotic' or 'active' symptoms) reflect an excess or distortion of normal functioning and include the following:

Delusions

Delusions are false personal beliefs held with extraordinary conviction in spite of what others believe and in spite of obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. They may revolve around many themes. For example, a person experiencing delusions may believe they are being spied on, tormented, followed or tricked (persecutory). Or they may believe gestures, comments, passages from books, television and other environmental cues are directed specifically at them (referential). Delusions may be bizarre (believing your thoughts have been removed by an outside force) or realistic (believing you are being followed by the police). Delusions will occur during some stage of the disorder in ninety percent of people who experience schizophrenia.

Hallucinations

Hallucinations can occur in any of the five senses but the most common are auditory. These are usually experienced as voices which are perceived as distinct from the person's own thoughts. For example, the person may hear voices repeating or mimicking their thoughts, arguing, commenting on their actions (often in a critical manner) or telling them what to do (command hallucinations). Hallucinations of any form occur in over 70 per cent of people who experience psychotic illnesses. Auditory hallucinations occur in 60-90 per cent of people with schizophrenia, while visual hallucinations occur in 15-50 per cent.

Disorganised Thinking

This is usually expressed through abnormal spoken language. For example, the person's conversation jumps erratically from one topic to another, new words may be created, the grammatical structure of language breaks down and speech may greatly speed up or slow down.

Disorganised Behaviour

This can be manifested in a variety of ways. A person with schizophrenia may, for example, aimlessly wander, display child-like silliness or become unpredictable agitated. Or they may display behaviour that is considered inappropriate according to usual social norms, such as wearing many layers on a hot day, muttering aloud in public or inappropriately shouting or swearing. Disorganised behaviour can lead to problems in organising meals and maintaining hygiene. It may be difficult to link disorganised behaviour in adolescents to psychosis as teenagers are often intrinsically disorganised.

Catatonic Behaviour

This refers to states of muscular rigidity and immobility, stupor and negativism, or to states of wild excitement. The person may hold fixed or bizarre bodily postures for extended periods of time and resist any effort to be moved. Catatonic behaviour is very rare in developed countries (Cutting, 1996).

Negative symptoms

The negative symptoms of schizophrenia (also referred to as 'deficit' symptoms) reflect a loss of normal functioning and include the following:

Loss of Motivation (Avolition)

This may involve lack of energy, apathy or seeming absence of interest in what were usually routine activities. People experiencing avolition may be inattentive to grooming, personal hygiene, have difficulty making decisions and have difficulty persisting at work, school or household chores.

Loss of Feeling or an Inability to Experience Pleasure (Anhedonia)

This may manifest itself through having a lack of interest in social or recreational activities or through failure to develop close relationships. It may mean that the simple pleasures of life, like appreciating a beautiful sunset, being no longer enjoyed.

Poverty of Speech (Alogia)

The person's amount of speech is greatly reduced and tends to be vague or repetitious. People showing signs of alogia may be slow in responding to questions or not respond at all.

Flat Presentation (Affective Flattening)

This can be indicated by unchanging facial expressions, poor or no eye contact, reduced body language and decreased spontaneous movements. A person experiencing affective flattening may stare vacantly into space and speak in a flat, toneless voice. Flat affect refers to the outward expression of emotion and not the inner experience. this can be associated with a blunting of affect where people lose their sensitivity and ability to communicate emotion.

However, the negative symptoms are difficult to assess because they commonly precede an acute episode of illness and commonly persist.

It is also possible a person may have schizophrenia but be symptom-free. The symptoms may only emerge during an acute episode.

Cognitive symptoms

Cognitive dysfunction is usually present in people with schizophrenia. A large body of research demonstrates schizophrenia is associated with cognitive impairments including problems with attention, concentration and memory. This is often associated with difficulties in understanding social relationships and understanding what the other people may be thinking. This is called social cognition.

Mood and Anxiety

People with schizophrenia commonly become depressed and anxious at stages of their illness. depression can be a reaction to being psychotic or it can arise without any identifiable stressor. It can also contribute to people being amotivated, tired and angry. Unfortunately a small number of people with schizophrenia commit suicide and this is usually linked with feeling depressed.

Anxiety can be a reaction to some of the positive symptoms of psychosis, part of the process of recovery or arise partly out of the socially isolated lives that many people with schizophrenia live. It can limit the ability of people to get out and engage with the community.

Are there any early warning signs?

Yes. Usually before a person develops psychosis or schizophrenia, there is a period where 'something is not quite right'. During this time they may withdraw from their family and friends, have changes in their appetite and sleep patterns, find it difficult to concentrate and consequently have difficulties at school or work. The person may find this period very disturbing, even frightening, and may not want to talk about what is happening to them. This period is referred to in medical language as the ‘prodrome’.

The prodrome is the period of disturbance or mild symptoms that occurs before the onset of an illness. The prodrome for schizophrenia can be anything from a month to several years. New research is suggesting that if early interventions are begun during this period, the prospects for recovery or a milder course of illness are increased.

Some early warning signs and symptoms of psychosis are:

  • Changes in thinking: Difficulty in concentrating, poor memory, preoccupation with odd ideas, increased suspiciousness.
  • Changes in mood: Lack of emotional response, rapid mood changes, inappropriate moods.
  • Changes in behaviour: Odd or unusual behaviour.
  • Physical changes: Sleep disturbances or excessive sleep and loss of energy.
  • Social changes: Withdrawal and isolation from family and friends.
  • Changes in functioning: Decline in school or work performance.

Remember: none of these symptoms by themselves indicate the presence of schizophrenia or another mental illness. But if they are severe, persistent or recurrent, professional help should be sought as soon as possible.