Psychiatric Terminology

Sometimes mental health professionals may use psychiatric terminology, without explaining what it means to the client or to his/her carers, friends or family.  Here you will find a list of the most common psychiatric terminology and its meaning.


1)  Acting out  -  Reduction of emotional distress by the release of disturbed behavior which is unconsciously determined and reflects previous unresolved  conflict and attitudes.

2)  Addiction  -  True dependence on drugs (as opposed habituation) has four characteristics:  i) craving for the drug;  ii) increasing tolerance for it;  iii) psychological and physical dependence on it; iv) harmful effects on the individual and society, e.g. alcohol and opium.

3)  Affect  -  Emotion, feeling or mood.  Disorder of affect may occur in a variety of psychiatric illnesses.

4)  Ambivalence  -  Contradictory emotional feelings towards an object, e.g. love and hate for a person.  It is normal in inter-personal relationships but when it occurs to a marked degree it is morbid.

5)  Amentia -  Arrested development of the mind from birth in contrast to the acquired condition of dementia (organic illness) in later life.

6)  Anxiety  -  Emotional disorder characterised by uncertainty, apprehensiveness and unresolved fear.  It is a fear response, e.g. fight or flight.  Also known as anxiety state, anxiety reaction and anxiety neurosis.

7)  Aphasia -  Loss of ability to express meaning by the use of speech or writing, or understand spoken or written language.  The former being described as “motor” and the latter as “sensory aphasia.”

8)  Behavior  -  Change or response of any entity or system in relation to its environment.  Stimulus – Response.

9)  Behaviorism  -  School of psychology concerned with the observable responses in subjects, rather than with other internal processes.

10) Behavioral Therapy -  Principles of learning theory applied to the treatment of psychiatric disorders also called behavioral modification and conditioning therapy.

11) Blocking  -  Sudden stoppage of the train of thought.

12) Cognition -  Thought processes.

13) Compulsion  -  Continuous pre-occupation with impulse or movement to the exclusion of most other interests, associated with a feeling or compulsion against internal resistance and to the distress of the clients.  Occurs normally in play of children.

14) Conditioning -  Ways in which human beings and animals can be systematically taught to respond in a particular manner to stimuli.  In Pavlov’s classical experiment a dog was conditioned to salivate by giving food at the same time a bell was rung.  Then when the bell only was rung it still salivated – a conditioned response.

15) Confabulation  -  Fabrications to fill memory gaps.

16) Deja-vu  -  Sense of familiarity.

17) Delusion  -  False belief, in the face on contrary evidence is held with conviction and is unmodifiable  by appeals to reason or logic that would be acceptable to another person of the same religious or cultural background.

18) Dementia (organic illness)  -  Irreversible impairment of intellectual ability, memory and personality due to permanent damage or disease of the brain.

19) Denial  -  Defense mechanisms by which a painful experience is rejected.

20) Depression -  i) state of morbid sadness;  ii) lowering of mood and iii) depression with psychomotor retardation.

21) Derealisation  -  Feeling that the environment is unreal, usually occurs with derpersonalisation.

22) Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)  -  is a form of cognitive-behavioural therapy developed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., to deal with the riskier and more potentially lethal symptoms of suicidal feelings, self-cutting and self-mutilation.

23) Echolalia  -  Repetition of words or phrases spoken to the individual.

24) Endogenous  -  This means originating from within.  Used in psychiatry to distinguish between the depressive illnesses.

25) Euphoria  -  Feelings of well being; more than elation.

26) Flattening of affect  -  Emotional shallowness which is a feature of schizophrenia.

27) Flight of ideas  -  Succession of thoughts with no rational connection.  Typical of mania.

28) Folie a deux  -  Sharing of delusions by two closely associated individuals, such as husband and wife, one of whom suffers from a paranoid illness and eventually succeeds in inducing similar delusions in the other.

29) Formication  -  Feeling as if insects were crawling all over the body.

30) Fugue  -  State of alteration of consciousness combined with an impulse to wander.  Occurs in hysteria, depression, epilepsy, schizophrenia, organic cerebral disease and psychopathy.

31) Hallucination  -  False perception without external stimulation.  Any of the senses may be involved so that a hallucination can mean seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or feeling something that is not there.

32) Hypochondriasis  -  i) False belief in the actual presence of physical disease; ii) a mental preoccupation with unreal (or, if real, exaggerated) or supposed physical disorder.

33) Ideas of reference -  Person may have unfounded ideas that others are referring to him in their speech, writing and gestures.

34) Illusion  -  False perception of external stimulation.

35) Incongruity of affect  -  Disharmony between the clients mood and accompanying thought content which may be a feature in some cases of schizophrenia.  For example, a client may laugh about sad news.

36) Introspection  -  Observation by an individual of the workings of his own mind and his feelings and reactions to particular situations, events and people.

37) Introvert  -  Personality characterised by introspection and direction of interest inwards.  A shut-in type of personality.

38) Lability of affect -  Tendency to sudden changes in mood, It occurs in personality disorder and brain damage.

39) Mania  -  Elation, with psychomotor acceleration.

40) Manic Depression (Bi-polar disorder)  -  Affective disorder characterised by alternating high and low mood.

41) Morbid  -  Abnormal in quality or degree.  More prolonged in duration than is expected.

42) Neologism -  Making new meaningless words.

43) Neuroses  -  Disorder of the personality in which instinctive and emotional difficulties are manifested as mental or physical signs and symptoms.

44) Objective  -  i) something to be aimed at and achieved where possible; ii) that which can be perceived through the external senses.

45) Obsessive compulsive state  -  Recurrent mental event (thought, fear and impulsive) which the person cannot control, although he recognises it to be morbid and irrational.

46) Paraphasia  -  Speech disorder in which the wrong word is used.

47) Paraphrenia  -  Characterised by unsystematised delusions associated with hallucinations.  The personality is well preserved.

48) Perception  -  Process of becoming aware of something through one of the senses. i.e. seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching.

49) Perseveration  -  Tendency to keep repeating words, phrases, movements or behavior which is a common feature in organic illnesses.

50) Phobia  -  Excessive or irrational fear of a particular object or situation.

51) Picks disease  -  Progressive dementia with circumscribed cortical atrophy of fronto-temporal lobes.

52) Pre senile dementia  -  A state of intellectual and/or emotional impairment due to organic cerebral changes occurring before the age of 65.  Included in this category are; i) Alzheimer’s disease; ii) Pick’s disease; iii) Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease; and iv) Kraeplin’s disease.

53) Primary delusion  -  Delusions arising without any cause.  Often the first of schizophrenia.

54) Projection  -  Defense mechanism by which one judges others by one self.

55) Psychoanalysis -  Method of exploring the unconscious mind as devised by Sigmund Freud.  It is not the analysis of the mind.

56) Psychosis and neurosis -  Terms used to separate mental illness into two groups, the psychosis and the neurosis.  In psychosis the client has no insight into his/her illness.  In neurosis the client has insight into his/her illness.

57) Psychosomatic disorders  -  Physical disorders which are aggravated or precipitated by emotional disturbances.

58) Reaction Formation  -  Mental mechanism which keeps unconscious material from the conscious mind by presenting material opposite to the unconscious.

59) Regression  -  Reversion to a mode of behavior and/or an emotional state appropriate to a younger age.

60) Sublimation  -  Process of transforming the energy of repressed conflicts and directing them to socially acceptable goals.

61) Therapeutic community -  Is the social organisation in which a client can derive benefit by being a member of it.

62) Token economy  -  Method of controlling the behavior of a group of people in an institution, in which socialised, rational, adaptive behavior is reinforced by tokens which can be exchanged for a variety of privileges.

63) Word-salad  -  Incomprehensible speech containing nonsense syllables, jargons and neologisms.