Schizophrenia affects a person’s thoughts, feelings, and perception of reality. While its causes aren’t entirely understood, stress may play a role.

Schizophrenia can have a significant impact on the way a person experiences the world.

It most commonly begins in late adolescence or early adulthood. And causes:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • confused speech
  • abnormal behavior

While the causes of schizophrenia are complex and not entirely understood, stress can be an important contributing factor.

While it’s unlikely that stress alone would make someone develop schizophrenia, it could trigger the onset of symptoms if a person already has a predisposition to the condition.

In most cases, there is likely no single cause for schizophrenia. But understanding the link between stress and psychosis can help you gain insight into a condition believed to affect about 1% of people in the United States.

Stress isn’t considered to be a direct cause of schizophrenia, but it could trigger an episode of psychosis in a person who’s already vulnerable. 2016 research suggests that the condition can be caused by genetic predisposition and environmental factors.

This is known as the “two-hit hypothesis.” The first “hit” is a genetic or environmental factor that disrupts a person’s brain development, making them more susceptible to a “second hit” – for example, stress – which occurs later in their life.

Trauma during childhood

Stressful events during childhood have a particularly strong link to schizophrenia.

Studies from 2019 indicate that stress during critical phases of development can increase a person’s lifelong vulnerability to psychosis.

It’s believed that stress can lead to physical changes in a developing brain, dramatically changing how a person processes stimuli and emotions.

Abuse of any kind during childhood, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, can make a person roughly three times more likely to develop schizophrenia, according to a 2012 meta-analysis.


It’s common to experience mood fluctuations during pregnancy and after giving birth. But in rare cases, a person who has given birth will develop a condition known as postpartum psychosis.

Doctors believe that the dramatic hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy may be the reason for this.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), postpartum psychosis is classified as a “short psychotic disorder,” making it distinct from schizophrenia.

The possible symptoms of postpartum psychosis include:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • extreme confusion
  • detachment from reality

Sleep deprivation

Being deprived of sleep puts the human body under intense stress.

Research from 2014 has shown that 24 hours of sleep deprivation can cause symptoms that mirror schizophrenia, even in people with no history of the condition.

For someone with a predisposition to schizophrenia, being severely sleep deprived might trigger the onset of symptoms.

Psychosis symptoms are divided into two categories: positive and negative symptoms. Positive symptoms add a behavior that didn’t exist before, while negative symptoms reduce a previously present behavior.

Positive symptoms include:

  • delusions
  • hallucinations
  • disorganized speech
  • disorganized behavior

Negative symptoms include:

  • decreased speech and movement
  • lack of motivation
  • social withdrawal
  • lack of emotional display

The symptoms of psychosis can begin suddenly or can develop gradually over a period of weeks or months.

The symptoms of schizophrenia, or any episode of psychosis, can be frightening and overwhelming. You may sometimes feel unable to trust other people or even your own perception of the world.

To reduce the likelihood of an episode and mitigate the symptoms when they do arise, it’s a good idea to focus on managing your stress levels.

Effective coping strategies for psychosis include:

  • Taking your medications: It’s important to prioritize taking any medications prescribed to you at the appropriate time each day.
  • Practicing good sleep hygiene: Sleep deprivation, or even disrupted sleep patterns, can exacerbate psychosis. It’s a good idea to try and develop a consistent bedtime andmorning routine that works for you.
  • Journaling or art: These are examples of expressive coping methods which allow you to externalize your thoughts and make them less overwhelming.
  • Exercising: Staying physically active has been shown to improve the quality of life for those with psychosis. Your routine could involve walking, yoga, swimming, or any movement that feels nourishing to you.
  • Spending time in nature: This can reduce negative emotions and improve mental health across the board, including for those living with psychosis.
  • Psychotherapy: Therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are very helpful for those living with schizophrenia. CBT can help you to check the credibility of your beliefs and gain perspective on the false reality that hallucinations and delusions can create.

Like all mental illnesses, the causes of schizophrenia are complex and multi-faceted. It’s rare that there’s ever a single reason why a person develops schizophrenia.

But stress may be a trigger for the condition, particularly in people who already have a predisposition.

Stressful experiences during childhood, such as abuse and neglect, may make a person more susceptible to schizophrenia.

And stressors throughout life, including trauma, pregnancy, and sleep deprivation, can cause psychosis in rare cases.

But managing stress levels can reduce the likelihood of developing schizophrenia or psychosis and make the symptoms more manageable.