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Understanding Thought Disorders: What They Are, Symptoms, and Treatment Options



Thought disorders contribute to disruptions and irregularities in speech and thought patterns. People with thought disorders experience difficulties with organizing, assessing, and sharing their thoughts. This can apply to both verbal and written communication.

Thought disorders typically coincide with certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and bipolar disorder. However, thought disorders may temporarily manifest under extreme circumstances, such as severe sleep deprivation or acute trauma.


Types of Thought Disorders

Research shows that there are more than 20 thought disorder subtypes. It's important to first understand that thought disorder symptoms are typically categorized as either positive or negative. Keep in mind that positive doesn't mean "good" and negative doesn't mean "bad."


Positive symptoms: Positive symptoms refer to added behaviors that aren't present in people without thought disorders. Hallucinations and delusions are two common types of positive symptoms.

Negative symptoms: Negative symptoms refer to the absence of something important. For example, lack of speech or presenting with catatonia are two common types of negative symptoms.


Common Signs of Thought Disorders

People with thought disorders tend to exhibit various clusters of symptoms. A single symptom does not necessarily indicate mental illness. Furthermore, a thought disorder is not generally diagnosed until it legitimately impacts someone's ability to communicate with others.

Excessive details or irrelevant information: This sounds like someone frequently going off on tangents and being unable to answer direct questions. Speech is often circumstantial and may seem entirely irrelevant to the assigned topic.

Incoherent speech: The speech itself doesn't sound coherent, and it's hard to distinguish exactly what the person is saying (or what they mean).


Speaking too quickly: It can seem like speech is pressured, and the other person can't stop talking. Even in a casual conversation, it can feel like they must get everything out.


Prone to distractibility: They may seem prone to distraction and have difficulty sustaining their attention during a conversation. Even if they appear to be paying attention, you may question if they are truly listening to what you are saying.

Illogical conclusions: Their rationale or conclusions for certain beliefs don't necessarily make sense. Even if they try to defend their point, it can come across as erratic.

Clanging: Clanging refers to putting certain words together based on how they sound instead of what they mean. For example, someone might only use words that rhyme or words that start with the same letter.


Limited responses (alogia): Alogia, also known as poverty of speech, refers to very short, unelaborated responses to questions. People with this symptom rarely speak unless prompted, and it still may feel like pulling teeth.

Echolalia: Echolalia refers to repeating specific noises, words, or phrases. Instead of answering a question directly, they may answer it the way they have heard someone else respond (such as a TV character).

Neologism: This refers to using made-up words that don't commonly exist. These are different than general nicknames for people or items.

Ruminating: Someone with a thought disorder might frequently ruminate on certain situations to a point of obsession. They may share these thoughts with others, but sometimes, they will keep them hidden due to fear of judgment.

What Causes Thought Disorders?

Thought disorders are still not fully understood. Like all mental illnesses, it does not appear that a single trigger causes these conditions. Instead, experts have pinpointed a cluster of potential risk factors that may increase the likelihood of someone having a thought disorder.

These risk factors include:

  • family history of thought disorders

  • depression

  • bipolar disorder

  • traumatic brain injury

  • epilepsy

  • anxiety disorders

  • history of childhood trauma

What Helps Treat Thought Disorders?

Thought disorders can be challenging, but a combination of medication and therapy is typically helpful.

Medication: Antipsychotics, such as Risperdal, Seroquel, Zyprexa, and Abilify, are typically the first medications prescribed for treating conditions like schizophrenia. Antipsychotics work by blocking the brain's dopamine receptors. They may also affect other neurotransmitters, including serotonin and norepinephrine. This process reduces psychotic symptoms.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can work well for thought disorders, as CBT focuses on understanding how negative thoughts impact feelings and behavior. That said, some people with more severe thought disorders may resist professional intervention and fear being judged by healthcare providers.

Family therapy: Mental illness can affect the entire family, and it's important for loved ones to know how to relate and communicate with one another.

Stress management: Stress tends to exacerbate thought disorder problems. People often find that implementing healthier lifestyle changes can reduce the severity of some of their symptoms. It's important to prioritize optimal nutrition, physical activity, and getting plenty of rest.


Final Thoughts

Thought disorders can be difficult to understand- both for the person experiencing them and their loved ones. It's important to be patient and compassionate. You are not crazy because of how you think or feel.

That said, getting help is important. At Mental Health Transitions, we work with high-acuity mental illness, and we are here to support you and your loved ones.

Contact us today to learn more!


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