Mental health

A Glossary of Psychiatric Terms

Glossary of psych terms for delusions and thought form

Like any field, psychiatry has its own collection of terminology.  Some of it is self-explanatory, but some of it isn’t.  I believe that knowing the jargon helps to narrow the power gap between health care providers and patients, so I put together this glossary of common psychiatric terms.  

  • Alexithymia: inability to identify and describe one’s emotions
  • Anhedonia: an inability to experience pleasure
  • Avolition: an inability to initiate and persist in goal-directed activities
  • Catatonia: markedly decreased physical reactivity to the environment.  Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  • Confabulation: This is the unconscious filling in of memory gaps by imagined events; it does not involve intentional lying.  Traumatic brain injury is a good example of a condition that may involve confabulation.
  • Depersonalization: a form of dissociation in which the self doesn’t feel real; this may include a feeling of looking at the self from a detached perspective
  • Derealization: also a form of dissociation, this involves a sense that one’s surroundings aren’t fully real, and may feel like looking out at the world through a barrier
  • Echopraxia: imitation of movements
  • Ego-dystonic: thoughts that are inconsistent with what someone normally believes when they are well (the opposite of this is ego-syntonic)
  • Floridly psychotic: this descriptor is sometimes used when psychosis is overtly apparent
  • Responding to internal stimuli: this is sometimes used to describe someone who appears to be responding to hallucinations, such as if they appear to be listening to auditory hallucinations or talking back to them
  • Suicidal ideation (SI): thoughts of suicide
    • Active SI: thoughts of acting to take one’s life; may or may not have a specific plan, and the intent to act on those thoughts can be variable
    • Passive SI: wishing to die, but not thinking about doing something to make that happen

Disruptions in speech

  • Alogia: This refers to an impoverishment of thinking that is inferred from speech.  This can involve a decreased amount of speech (may be referred to as poverty of speech) or a lack of content (may be referred to as poverty of thought).
  • Dysprosody: abnormal rhythm of speech
  • Echolalia: imitation of words/sounds
  • Pressured speech: speech that is very rapid and difficult to interrupt

Types of delusions

  • Capgras: believing that people have been replaced by imposters
  • Erotomanic: an example would be believing that one is in a romantic relationship with a famous person
  • Grandiose: an example might be a person believing they are a key advisor to a major political figure
  • Ideas of reference: interpreting messages as being particularly directed at oneself, including things on billboards, tv, or radio; for example, something on a news broadcast might be perceived as containing a hidden message directed specifically at the individual.
  • Paranoid/persecutory: This is probably what first comes to mind when many people think of delusions.  These delusions that one is or will be harmed may be further described as non-bizarre (within the realm of possibility, like being monitored by the government) or bizarre (aliens trying to enter their home via the cat door to steal their right foot).
  • Somatic: false beliefs about things that are happening in one’s body, ranging from something like cancer to something bizarre like believing one’s stomach is filled with dancing turtles
  • Delusions of control: belief that one’s thoughts are controlled by outside forces
    • Thought broadcasting: believing that one’s thoughts can be heard by other people
    • Thought insertion/thought withdrawal: believing that thoughts are being put into or taken out of one’s head
  • “Delusional proportions”: things like guilt or obsessions may become so intense they’re considered to have become delusional in nature, aka reached delusional proportions
  • Overvalued ideas:  these are beliefs that someone is quite fixed on, but not to the extent that it’s a delusion

Thought form/thought process

  • Circumstantiality: wandering away from the original idea, but eventually returning to it
  • Clanging: grouping unrelated words based on sound (such as rhyming)
  • Concrete: interpreting things very literally, often tested by asking a patient to interpret proverbs; eg “it ain’t over til the fat lady sings” might be interpreted as an obese woman would have to sing a song before something could be finished
  • Loose associations: connecting ideas that seem to be totally unrelated
  • Neologisms: making up new words as a result of thought disorder
  • Overinclusive: including excessive, unnecessary amounts of detail
  • Perseveration: repeatedly returning to the same topic and difficult to redirect
  • Poverty of thought: an easy way to describe this might be that the lights are on but nobody’s home
  • Tangentiality: going off on a tangent that may be only slightly related, and losing the original idea
  • Word salad: words put together in an incoherent manner

Descriptors of affect (facial expression of emotion)

  • Euthymic: neutral, “normal”
  • Expansive: unrestrained expression of feelings
  • Incongruent: doesn’t match the reported mood, e.g. smiling while reporting feeling sad
  • Labile: rapidly changing from one emotion to another
  • Restricted/blunted/flat: These all refer to decreased facial expressiveness.  Restricted is the mildest term, and flat refers to almost no emotional expression.

Some of these terms may sound rather judge-y, but like jargon in any field, when terms are used routinely they start to lose the connotations they might have outside that particular field.  Having a set of relatively standardized psychiatric terms is useful in helping health care providers understand what is being referred to in a patient’s chart, but it’s easy to forget that these terms may mean something very different to the patient who ends up reading their own chart later on.

Have you ever had psychiatric jargon applied to you in some way that felt wrong or judgmental?

You may also be interested in this post on the mental status exam.

For a more extensive list of terms, the World Health Organization has a lexicon of psychiatric and mental health terms.

glossary of psych terms: speech, behaviour, and affect
book cover: Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis by Ashley L. Peterson

Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis breaks down the different categories of DSM-5 diagnoses, explaining the diagnostic criteria and providing first-hand stories of the various illnesses.  It’s available on Amazon and other online retailers, as well as the MH@H Store.

This post contains affiliate links that let you support MH@H at no extra cost to you.

10 thoughts on “A Glossary of Psychiatric Terms”

  1. Great scene from Frasier: He’s going off the air, and he says, “And sadly, no one was able to answer today’s psychological mind-teaser, so once again the prize goes unclaimed. By the way, today’s answer was ‘anhedonia.'” Frasier chuckles. “This is Dr. Frasier Crane, saying good day Seattle, and good mental health.”

    You’d have won that antenna ball for sure, Ashley Leia!!

  2. I found a lot of these terms have been used on me in the past. Then again, there are quite a few I haven’t heard about. My phsych dr. questioned me once as to why I thought I needed sleep medication, was it because I didn’t want to face reality? I was so insulted, I nearly walked out on her. I have had issues with insomnia for nearly seven years, and even when I was a child. I hate taking all those meds, but if they help me… why question it. It’s better to walk around up and alive then half dead like I use to.

  3. For me this is so helpful. Sometimes I feel like they are speaking in a foreign language especially if there is two of them discussing me whilst I’m there. You offer such great insight into what we’re all going through. Thank you

  4. These alleged disorders are voted on by group of people who control what is and what is not a disorder in the DSM. a good article to read is ( Reification of Psychiatric Diagnoses as Defamatory: Implications for Ethical Clinical Practice) Ethical Juman Psychology and Psychiatry, Volume 7 , Number 1, Spring 2005. It can be found online.

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