The term ‘referential delusions’ refers to the mistaken belief that ordinary events and normal human behavior have hidden meanings that somehow relate to the individual experiencing the delusions. People with referential delusions essentially see themselves as the center of the universe, and they remain resistant to contrary evidence. As a symptom of psychosis, referential delusions are common, and treatment for the psychotic disorders that cause them are the best remedy for these false perceptions and ideas.
Delusions are a symptom of multiple psychotic disorders, and referential delusions are one of the more common examples of this phenomenon.
When people with psychotic disorders fall under the spell of such delusions, they begin to see themselves as the center of everything, as the focal point of others’ attention. Through faulty perception or interpretation, they become convinced that other people are watching them, talking about them, or sending them non-verbal signals meant to convey important messages or warnings.
People experiencing delusions of reference are immersed in a world where surface reality is deceptive. Where seemingly random or disconnected events are infused with hidden meaning, and where the actions of other people must be decoded before they can be properly comprehended. They are the central characters of the stories they construct, which seem real from their perspective but are based on psychological projection and leaps of imagination.
Depending on the content of their referential delusions, people exhibiting this symptom of psychosis may see others as friends or foes. But either way, their perceptions are entirely unrelated to objective reality.
Types of Referential Delusions
Mental health researches have identified two distinctive subtypes of referential delusions: delusions of communication and delusions of observation.
Delusions of communication
People who experience this type of delusion believe others are attempting to communicate with them non-verbally, relaying messages that are often in contradiction to their verbal expressions or apparent intent.
From the perspective of the person having the delusions, these meanings may be revealed through body language, patterns of movement, vocal tones, the manipulation or placement of physical objects, or other actions taken by people who share the environments they occupy.
Delusions of observation
When men and women have this type of referential delusion, they are certain that they’ve been targeted for surveillance, and possibly for persecution, by other people or by large impersonal forces or institutions. They may be convinced the government is spying on them, with malicious intent, or believe they’re being stalked or harassed by neighbors or co-workers as a part of some grand conspiracy.
While people having delusions of observation don’t require direct evidence to confirm their fears, it sometimes comes anyway, in the form of auditory or visual hallucinations that reinforce their perception of being persecuted.
Conditions That Can Cause Referential Delusions
As a common symptom of psychosis, referential delusions can occur in connection with a psychotic disorder, or a mental health condition that sometimes features psychotic episodes. In some instances, they may be a side effect of a physical condition rather than a mental health disorder, which will require a different type of treatment protocol.
The 12 medical or mental health disorders known to cause delusions include:
- Schizophreniform disorder
- Schizoaffective disorder
- Delusional disorders (of any type)
- Bipolar disorder (during the manic stage)
- Major depression with psychotic features
- Substance-induced psychosis (particularly cannabis- and hallucinogen-induced psychosis)
- Postpartum psychosis
- Brief psychotic episodes
- Psychosis due to a general medical condition (often a previous brain injury)
People with Cluster A personality disorders (schizoid, schizotypal, and paranoid) are also prone to referential thinking. However, referential thinking is not the same as referential delusions, which exist as firm beliefs that are not subject to refutation. Men and women with Cluster A personality disorders often suspect outside events or the actions of others are somehow directed at them, or center around their needs, fears or desires, but they are reflective enough to doubt those intuitions and therefore tend to have vague suspicions rather than hardened convictions.
Studies reveal that more than 60 percent of people enrolled in mental health treatment programs for psychotic disorders will have experienced referential delusions, and that number rises to two-thirds among men and women who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Treating Referential Delusions
Referential ideas are not uncommon, and even those who’ve never been diagnosed with a mental health disorder may occasionally wonder if external events are somehow related to them. But most people recognize the unlikely or irrational nature of such conceptions, whereas those who are trapped by delusions are incapable of perceiving the irrationality of their referential beliefs.
Fortunately, psychotic disorders that produce such symptoms are highly responsive to treatment, once an accurate diagnosis has been made. Atypical antipsychotic medications, which regulate the activities of relevant neurotransmitters in the brain, are usually prescribed to help control delusions and other serious psychotic symptoms, and a treatment regimen that includes medication plus individual, group, and family therapy often gets results in patients with psychotic disorders, or conditions that cause occasional psychotic episodes.
In most instances, referential delusions are not dangerous, although they can provoke statements, actions, or behavior that others find confusing or alarming. But such delusions should not be taken lightly—they indicate the presence of a serious underlying disorder, psychotic in nature, which can cause significant life complications if left untreated.
During inpatient and outpatient treatment programs for conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression with psychotic features, or Cluster A personality disorders, all symptoms experienced will be acknowledged and addressed, as they must be for true healing to occur. With expert assistance from trained mental health professionals, even people experiencing the most vivid delusions accompanied by frightening hallucinations can eventually reconnect with the real world, and with the lives they’ve left behind.