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Understanding “positive” and “negative” psychosis symptoms

People having fun at a group meeting

When we hear the word “psychosis,” we often think of experiences like hearing voices or sounds that others are not hearing or having unusual, upsetting thoughts. But some people with psychosis can experience many kinds of symptoms falling into two different categories: positive symptoms and negative symptoms. 

These terms can be misleading, as positive and negative does not refer to whether a symptom is pleasant or unpleasant. Instead, positive symptoms refer to the presence of unusual traits or experiences while negative symptoms refer to the absence of healthy traits and experiences. In other words, positive symptoms refer to unusual thoughts or experiences that are added on, whereas negative symptoms are the traits, thoughts or experiences that are taken away because of illness. 

Positive symptoms can include experiences such as hearing sounds or voices that others cannot hear, seeing things that others cannot see, odd or upsetting thoughts, suspiciousness of others, beliefs about having special powers and confusion about what is a dream and what is reality.

In contrast, negative symptoms reflect a decrease in something that the affected person used to care about or do. Common negative symptoms include feeling less excited about spending time with family and friends, showing fewer facial expressions and less emotion, feeling bored or lazy, having trouble concentrating at school or work, and not caring about personal hygiene like bathing or teeth-brushing. 

Treatment can help young adults manage both positive and negative symptoms of psychosis. At the Early Treatment Program, treatment providers are here to help you figure out which psychosis symptoms you or your child may be experiencing, to answer questions and to help you find symptom management options that work best for you. To learn more, call (718) 470-8888.

Brianna Cheney, PhD

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