Flight of ideas occurs when someone talks quickly and erratically, jumping rapidly between ideas and thoughts.
Flight of ideas is not a medical condition in itself. It is a symptom that may occur as part of mania, psychosis, and some neurodevelopmental conditions.
Keep reading to learn more about flight of ideas, including the symptoms, associated conditions, and more.
According to the American Psychological Association, flight of ideas is a type of thought disorder that causes some people to speak rapidly and quickly shift between loosely connected ideas when speaking.
From time to time, most people become excited and speak too quickly or switch between ideas as they flood into their mind. When this happens, people are usually aware of and acknowledge the fact that they are speaking quickly.
However, flight of ideas is a type of thought disorder that may present as a symptom of an underlying condition. People with this thought disorder tend to be oblivious to the fact that they are switching from subject to subject, as every topic seems “connected” to them.
It may be difficult to understand or follow what someone with flight of ideas is saying. Their speech may be nonsensical, or they may speak so quickly that they slur or skip words.
Everyone experiences flight of ideas differently. That said, some general symptoms that people are likely to experience include:
- speaking quickly and switching rapidly between ideas or thoughts that are not obviously connected
- in conversation, not providing the details necessary for other people to understand how the words, thoughts, or ideas are connected
- not providing information that indicates a topic change
- speaking in a way that is illogical, nonsensical, or difficult to follow or understand
- acting very excited, anxious, or nervous
There are several conditions that can lead to people experiencing flight of ideas. The sections below will look at some of these in more detail.
In most cases, flight of ideas is due to mania. Mania is a period of intensely heightened mood, energy levels, and erratic behavior that can occur in people with bipolar disorder.
Some symptoms of mania include:
- feeling like sleep is not necessary, only getting a few hours of sleep, or getting no sleep and still feeling energized
- feeling intensely happy, energized, on top of the world, or “wired”
- being excessively productive, such as starting many projects at the same time
- engaging in risky, unusual, out-of-character, or impulsive behaviors
- being less reserved or aware of societal norms and restraints
People with psychosis can also experience flight of ideas. Psychosis occurs when someone has difficulty distinguishing between reality and hallucinations or delusions.
People experiencing psychosis may:
- feel, taste, hear, or see things that are not there
- feel as though they have superpowers, are immortal, or are a very important person, such as a celebrity, when they are not
- feel as though they are being watched, tracked, or controlled by outside forces
- hear voices in their head that are often abusive, cruel, or demanding
- feel as though people on the television or radio are speaking directly to them or trying to secretly communicate with them
- have difficulty communicating or thinking properly
Flight of ideas is fairly similar to a few other thought disorders. These include:
- Racing thoughts: This is when thoughts rapidly race through someone’s mind, often in a way that seems uncontrollable.
- Thought blocking: This occurs when someone suddenly stops speaking and feels as though what they were about to say has been deleted from their mind.
- Circumstantial thinking: This occurs when someone’s thoughts are connected, but the person goes far off-topic when speaking before eventually circling back to the initial idea or topic.
- Tangential thinking: This is when someone’s ideas are connected, but the person goes far off-topic and does not return to the initial topic or idea.
- Loose thinking: This is when someone’s thoughts are not connected, and the person cannot follow a train of thought.
- Preservation thinking: This is when someone keeps returning to the same idea or topic no matter the questions that someone asks them or the topics they are currently discussing.
Autistic people and those who have multiple complex developmental conditions may also experience flight of ideas. In these cases, however, flight of ideas seems to be more of a communication problem than a true thought disorder.
The best treatment and coping strategies for people experiencing flight of ideas depend on the cause.
Some treatment options for mania and psychosis include:
- mood stabilizers
- antipsychotic or atypical antipsychotic medications
- antianxiety or antidepressant medications
- sleep medications
- therapy, often cognitive behavioral therapy or group therapy
- peer counseling or peer support groups
- education services and programming, such as those to help identify triggers, cope with symptoms, and manage medications
- electroconvulsive therapy, when other treatment options do not work
Certain lifestyle habits also tend to reduce the chance of mania and psychosis in people who are prone to it. These habits include:
- eating a healthy, balanced diet
- practicing good sleep hygiene, such as going to bed and waking up at the same time each day
- managing stress, such as talking to others and trying mindfulness practices
- getting regular vigorous exercise
- tracking symptoms, mood levels, sleeping patterns, life events, and stressful or anxiety-producing events
- tracking medication usage and watching for potential side effects
- talking openly with healthcare professionals to find the best treatment plan
- sticking to treatment plans, especially medication regimens
- learning to recognize when symptoms are developing and what triggers them
There are plenty of ways to help someone who may be experiencing flight of ideas or the conditions that cause it.
One of the best ways to help anyone with a mental health condition is to talk with them first. This may include asking them about the symptoms and worries they have, whether or not they feel safe, and if they think they may harm themselves or others.
If someone does not feel safe, ask how to make them feel safe and help them achieve this or come up with a safety plan.
If someone is experiencing an emergency, such as showing any signs that they may harm themselves or others, call 911 and seek advice on how to proceed. If this is not possible, take the person to the nearest emergency medical facility. It is especially important to call ahead during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If someone is threatening to harm themselves, one can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Alternatively, one can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “HELLO” to 741741.
For veterans in crisis, one can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255.
If someone is discussing harming themselves or others online or displaying dangerous behaviors, contact the social media platform they are using or call 911 and ask how to proceed.
Be sure to keep in touch with anyone who is experiencing a mental health condition or crisis.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
Anyone who is experiencing flight of ideas or mild symptoms of mania or psychosis should contact a doctor as soon as possible. A family doctor or general doctor will then refer them to a physiatrist or neurologist for diagnosis and treatment.
Anyone who is experiencing severe mania or psychosis will likely require emergency care. Call 911 or a crisis hotline and ask how to proceed if the following symptoms occur:
- hallucinations, or sensing things that are not there
- delusions, or false beliefs
- severe thought disorders, which include disorganized or unusual speech and thinking patterns
- showing any signs of self-harming
- threatening to harm others or showing signs of intending to harm others
- engaging in reckless behaviors that may lead to self-harm or the harm of others
Flight of ideas is a thought disorder associated with conditions that cause mania and psychosis.
In some cases, it can also be a symptom of certain neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
People who experience mania or psychosis usually require medical care.
A person needs professional help as soon as possible if symptoms of mania or psychosis, such as flight of ideas, occur.
A person needs emergency care if more severe or life threatening symptoms — such as hallucinations, delusions, or thoughts of self-harm — occur.