This one has been giving me headaches for about a year now.

Some time ago, I created an AskReddit thread with the following title:

How do you psychically prepare for pain before a surgical procedure?

I was mocked in the comments. Redditors were saying that psychically refers to psychics (people who supposedly contact the dead). However, when I looked it up at The Wiktionary, the entry for psychically states:

  1. in a psychical or psychic manner
  2. mentally

I was also told that the proper word I was looking for is psychologically.

A few months later, in another thread, in one of my comments I wrote:

To perform a proper backflip, you have to prepare not only physically, but also psychologically.

And again, of course, I was mocked, because now, it turns out, I was supposed to use mentally, contrary to what I had been recommended before.

Could the native American and British English speakers of ELU tell me:

  • Was I ever wrong in whatever I wrote to Reddit, or are Redditors wrong?
  • Is there any difference between the three words in question?
  • If there is any difference, how do I properly decide which/when to use?
  • FWIW- Psychically refers to (things like) Extra Sensory Perception, Telepathy, etc. and should not be used in the context you did. However, the way you used psychologically works and is correct but a little out-of-place in common usage. Mentally would be the go-to for this usage. You mentally prepare for something; you can psychologically effect someone; you can psychically sense ghosts.
    – MegaMark
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 12:53
  • psychically adverb "Such a view ignores the extent to which intellectuals and politicians feed psychically on one another's approval" oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/psychic (Open the "More example sentences" hidden text.)
    – Kris
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 13:20
  • 2
    While psychic and its derivatives are mostly (almost exclusively) used in the sense "relating to or denoting faculties or phenomena that are apparently inexplicable by natural laws," (ibid.) the adverbial form psychically is at least sometimes used in the sense similar to psychologically/ mentally.
    – Kris
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 13:24
  • 6
    Have you forgotten the fact that the Internet, esp. Reddit is full of trolls who enjoy mocking others out there? They're mental!
    – Neeku
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 13:26
  • 1
    I think using psychically in this way is archaic, at least in American English. I wouldn't be surprised if it's still common in British English.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 16, 2014 at 10:50

9 Answers 9


Psychological often refers to one's emotive and mental acuity state. Some people are psychologically better equipped than others when faced with hardship and particularly traumatic events in their lives, their minds will remain "sane" while others will suffer nervous breakdowns, fall into depression, or in more extreme cases, actually "lose their minds".

Mentally as an adverb, does not usually refer to one's sanity; to prepare oneself mentally before an arduous task is similar to psyching yourself up.

psyching yourself up: to try to make yourself feel confident and ready to do something difficult: I have to spend a little time on my own before I give a speech, psyching myself up.

mentally: connected with or related to the mind:
It's going to be a tough competition but I'm mentally prepared for it.

here the given example means to control one's nerves, anxiety, and emotional state. You mentally challenge yourself to face the task ahead. For some that task might even be traumatic e.g., speaking in front of a large audience, but it is a short-lived one, and people are rarely affected psychologically.

Psychically this one is trickier. First of all, as an adverb, it's not commonly heard in speech. Off the top of my head I can't think of an idiomatic expression which uses this term whereas its adjectival form, psychic, usually refers to a medium or any person "gifted" with paranormal abilities.

psychic adj : having a special mental ability, for example so that you are able to know what will happen in the future or know what people are thinking: psychic powers

psychic n: a person who has a special mental ability, for example being able to know what will happen in the future or what people are thinking: a gifted psychic

However, I believe, doctors and psychiatrists use the term psychic problems when referring to patients whose mental health is impaired or as many would say, are mentally ill. Why did I prefer the adjective mentally in that expression? I could easily have said psychologically ill and be understood, but it's a question of collocation. "Mentally ill" is by far the more popular term as the Google Ngram below confirms enter image description here


In Google books; "physically and mentally" yields a massive 10,200,000 results while "physically and psychologically" yields 1,340,000 results. If we add the term "prepare" the expression "physically and psychologically prepare" yields a modest 131 results whereas "physically and mentally prepare" produces a very respectable 1,510 results.


  • How do you psychically prepare for pain before a surgical procedure?

Redditors were correct in saying that the term, psychologically prepared, used in that context is more idiomatic. Pain itself is not a task, a job, or a competition. To bear pain, especially prolonged pain, requires a healthy and rational mind.

  • To perform a proper backflip, you have to prepare not only physically, but also psychologically

I wouldn't consider the term psychologically in this instance to be an error in the strictest sense of the word. It's fully understandable and I'm sure many native speakers have uttered similar things in their lives, nevertheless it's hard to argue against the term, mentally, being preferable. I would posit that performing backflips does not necessarily require a healthy, sane mind. It is a physical activity which requires a level of concentration and self-confidence.
(see: psych yourself up)

Further data

Google books reports 9,960 results for "psychic problems"; 165,000 results for "mental problems" and 626,000 results for "psychological problems". By looking at their usage, the differences between these terms will be clearer.


'Psychically' is better than 'mentally' in your first example, because it is that subconscious layer of the mind that one is addressing. Jon Jay Obermark

Whilst I may agree that the term, psychically, is not wholly inappropriate, psychically prepare is not idiomatic nor common. Indeed the Google Ngram chart shows that the expression psychically prepare is non-existent in American literature, whereas the expressions psychologically prepare and mentally prepare are both recorded.

enter image description here

The Chambers Dictionary 12th edition under psychic informs:

psy'chic adj. (also psy'chical) relating to the psyche, soul or mind; spiritual, spiritualistic; beyond, or apparently beyond, the physical; sensitive to, in touch with, or apparently having powers or capabilities derived from, something that has not yet been explained physically, eg apparently prescient or telepathic (psychical research investigation phenomena apparently implying a connection with another world; [...] ) psy'chically adv.

  • OK, so taking the quote out of context, you can place it beside a dictionary definition that fails to embrace that context. Minority forms are sometimes better, especially when the common form is based primarily in distaste and bias. Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 17:14

I will not give you grammatical or etymologic explanations. I'm not a native english speaker either.

But as someone that's being studying ESL for more than 3 decades I cal tell you:

  • Forget psychically. Almost nobody uses that word and when they do, they are talking about paranormal things.
  • Use psychologically only in situations when a psychologist is helping someone, like in "the soccer team have been helped psychologically to improve their communication problem".
  • You could have gone safely with mentally in both cases you mentioned.

Stick to what is common or sounds natural in english, not what is common or sounds natural in your mother tongue.

  • 2
    The term, psychologically, is frequently used by both native and non native speakers, it is not reserved to the medical profession, (only in situations when a psychologist is helping someone), it's by learning from one's mistakes—however small they may be— that one's English improves.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 6:46

You are just fine, and the commentators are excessively fussy.

'Psychically' has a long history borrowed from psychoanalysis of referring not just to the supernatural but to the deeper reaches of mental processing. 'Psychically' is better than 'mentally' in your first example, because it is that subconscious layer of the mind that one is addressing. Unfortunately 'psychically' had an earlier more widespread history related to the Spiritualist religious movement and its relatives. So it leaves a bad taste for many. They are simply not as scientifically cultured, or are more deeply steeped in the older cultural influences. Either way, the users of 'psychically' meant what you mean, mentally, but possibly at a level below ordinary consciousness.

'Psychologically' can mean exactly the same thing, but it is sometimes colored with an assumption of objectivity and conscious analysis. So the objector may have disliked that it was not subjective enough. It feels wrong to some speakers in situations exactly like yours, where the emphasis is on actions that feel extra-conscious. (Whatever preparations you make mentally for surgery or for athletic performance can't be too focused on conscious processing, because you are expecting them to affect something during which you are actually unconscious, or something quick enough that you do it entirely in 'flow'.) To those readers 'psychological' preparation would be based on a theory of the mind, and not on a feeling.

'Mentally' is neutral, and a good choice for not offending people who do not believe there is much structure or complexity to the way a person relates to the mind, or who have strong biases about how it actually works. It simply has neither of the other overtones unless it somehow contrasted with 'spiritually'. But I feel, in those two examples, that you want one of the implications it avoids.

You could go for the full risk and use 'spiritually' or 'subconsciously' asserting a little of how you feel the mind responds to us. It might be audacious enough to put off nigglers. People who do not share your bias will see it and correct for it, rather that assuming this is a vocabulary issue.


It's true that psychically means "mental" or pertaining to the mind. Technically you can use the word the way you did. Take for instance the phrase:

The soldier was wounded both physically and psychically.

This is correct, grammar-wise. However, you won't hear this word outside of the field of psychology and you're increasing your probability of getting slapped in the face by a... psycho.

Let's look at a little background on the word. I used the word psycho just now, you used the word psychically, what's with the psy- prefix? If I had to take the wildest guess, I'd say it's some South Korean pop singer who perhaps got over 2 billion views on a YouTube video of an auto-tuned song that nobody understands in which he embarrasses himself and dances like a horse or something along that line. But that would be totally nonsensical, and I have no idea how I came up with such a ridiculous conjecture.

The psy- prefix is used in Greek for words that relate to the mind. The word psychically actually comes from the word psyche, which comes from a Greek word that literally means "breath." From breath came the word soul (anything that breathes has a soul), and from soul came the idea of the mind/spirit. With this in mind, the definition of the word psyche was formulated to be:

The human soul, spirit, or mind.

Of course, the word psychical therefore has the definition of relating to psyche as you have seen in the dictionary.

Wow, I'm proving you right! Right? Not really. Sorry to burst your bubbles but let me rejoice: Har har, har har. I burst bubbles professionally now; har, har. Now that I had my laugh, it's time to travel in time... to December 8th, 1871, in England. Professor William Crookes publishes a piece called the "Psychic Force", which describes his encounter of someone we would call today a psychic. The only useful text from his writing is the last paragraph (reproduced below), but you can read more on his Wikipedia page.

"Respecting the cause of the phenomena, the nature of the force to which to avoid periphrasis, I have ventured to give the name of Psychic, and the correlation existing between that and the other forces of nature, it would be wrong to hazard the most vague hypothesis. Indeed, in enquiries connected so intimately with rare physiological and psychological conditions, it is the duty of the enquirer to abstain altogether from framing theories until he has accumulated a sufficient number of facts to form a substantial basis upon which' to reason. In the presence of strange phenomena as yet unexplored and unexplained, following each other in such rapid succession, I confess it is difficult to avoid clothing their record in language of a sensational character. But to be successful an enquiry of this kind must be undertaken by the philosopher without prejudice and without sentiment. Romantic and superstitious ideas should be entirely banished and the steps of his investigation should be guided by intellect as cold and passionless as the instruments he uses. Having once satisfied himself that he is on the track of a new truth, that single object should animate him to pursue it, without regarding whether the facts which occur before his eyes are 'naturally possible or impossible.'"

I found an earlier (?!) piece that labeled criticism of many scientists regarding the "psychic force," but makes sure to note...:

Of course that is possible, and if true, would dispose of the "new force" ;— but if it happened so, Dr Huggins and Mr Crookes cannot be even decently good and acute observers, which their scientific reputation warrants us in believing them to be.

...that Mr. Crookes is a very reputable scientist.

From the Wikipedia page, we know that he probably regretted publishing this because it was all a fraud:

In a series of experiments in London at the house of Crookes in February 1875, the medium Anna Eva Fay managed to fool Crookes into believing she had genuine psychic powers. Fay later confessed to her fraud and revealed the tricks she had used.

But that didn't stop the people from freaking out. From then on, people started believing in the "psychics" the professor described, and movies, books, and other things started featuring those abnormal human beings who have supernatural mental powers.

Jumping back to the 21st century, in, uh, Allentown(??), if you go and ask people what psychic means, they'll tell you it refers to someone who can read minds, talk to spirits/the dead, etc. This is because, thanks to our culture, the word evolved to become a noun from an adjective that has been used since 1642 to mean "relating to the mind" with Crookes' definition of a psychic. So your 'pals' at reddit know the noun 'psychic', and thought (wrongfully) that psychically means relating to the noun. The word psychically is only related to the adjective psychic (which means "relating to the mind") and has not evolved to accommodate for the noun we added about 229 years later.

Psychologically can also mean the same thing and you're still grammatically correct. However, psychologically is usually never used because it's pretty ambiguous when you want to just refer to the mind. You'll only see it when people refer to the field of psychology, for instance:

Psychologically speaking, smart people are smarter than dumb people. -Confucius (jk).

The word psychological, on the other hand, is used commonly, as in the statement below:

Son: Mommy! I think I have AIDS.

Mom: It's just psychological. You're too ugly to find a mate to contract AIDS from so don't worry about it, noob.

But that's because "mental" doesn't fit and "mentallic" isn't a real word.

So psychologically - out, mentally wins and makes the statement sound the best.

The verdict (tl;dr)

  • Redditors speak before they think.
  • Your usage is correct according to the words' definitions.
  • In the defense of redditors, what you said would sound weird to any native English speaker.
  • "Mentally" is the best word to use in your question because it's specific and, really, just flows. How do I mentally prepare.
  • To know which one to use for next time, it's one of those things that really just take practice to master (as you hear different phrases use different words).
  • I spent too much time on this answer and I should stay away from this website.
  • Pneuma means breath. psyche means soul. The spellings are not even related in Greek, only in English transcription. Psyche and Pneuma are often strictly separated by people thinking about spirituality in the ancient Greek world and Greek Orthodoxy, the one related to the feeling of self and agency and the other to inspiration and the feeling of joining with things beyond the individual. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 14:31
  • @JonJayObermark Sorry I meant to say that it is derived from a word in Greek that means "breath." I don't speak Greek but that's the etymology I found in a dictionary. Also to the down voter - explain how I can improve my answer.
    – Shahar
    Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 15:28
  • The problem is that Greek as umpty two words for 'soul'. Anything that breathes has a thymos, if it lacks a noos, it then does not have a psyche. I would guess that psychien is tied in here primarily as the fact language is based on breath, not that 'anything that breathes has a soul'. Commented Aug 19, 2014 at 13:35
  • Your psyche is your subconscious being, or inner soul.

  • Your psychology is your conscious emotions, fears, and personality.

  • Your mental state is your analytic thoughts, beliefs, and willful visualizations.

You would want to prepare psychologically for surgery to deal with your emotions and fear.

You would want to prepare mentally for a backflip: to concentrate and focus on seeing yourself completing the rotation, and visualizing the ground coming up to your feet.

As for preparing your psyche, you can't really do that because your psyche is both non-conscious and non-willful. People who want to work on their psyche practice things like spiritual meditation, or visit hypnotists.

In common modern English usage, as you encountered, "psychic" is now (although it wasn't always) reserved for the more paranormal approaches to explaining and dealing with the subconscious.

  • One thing I don't like about offering bounties is the difficulty to decide who deserves it the most, as for example in this case, I think a lot of people do! On top of that, I really love this answer.
    – Frantisek
    Commented Aug 23, 2014 at 11:15
  • In either the Freudian sense or the magical one, you would prepare psychically for a back-flip if it involved deep breathing and visualizations that are meant to feed the subconscious or remind yourself subliminally of preparations that you do not wish to consciously reiterate. Lifting those out and declaring 'willful visualizations' different from other kinds doesn't change decades or centuries of usage. Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 15:43

I have expanded my answer as the bounty is likely to attract more and qualified readers.

1)- psychically refer to the Psyche (the spirit: the soul and mind of a human being) and also to the supernatural as it is formed from two different adjectives 'psychic' and 'psychical' that differ in meaning and usage: 'psychic powers/ phenomena' = supernatural, "psychic/ psychical research" = relative to an illness of the psyche. It is mainly used for medicine and psychiatry 'psychically wounded' = 'not physically, in his psyche'. In your case:

How do you psychically prepare for pain before a surgical procedure?

It is grammatically correct in the sense of 'not in a physical way', but nowadays 'psychically' is chiefl yused with reference to the supernatural: 'psychic-ally sensitive' as the root 'psychic' is prevalent on 'psychical'. In other circumstances regarding the soul we may say: 'prepare spiritually for retreat'

The other two are also referred to the sphere of man which is not physical, but

2) - psychologically is used when emotions are involved: 'psychological warfare', or personality or social relations, when the mind is considered as the subject matter of psychology: 'psychological research', "work that might harm people psycologically is subject to review".

You can prepare (yourself) 'physically' or 'psychologically'. You prepare psychologically to face an emergency of any kind: a danger, a defeat; for surgery you can prepare both physically and psycologically. In some circumstances this term can be substituted by 'prepare emotionally'

3) - mentally is referred to the activity of the mind, the intellect. It is chiefly used as relating to 'intellectual' as contrasted both with 'physical' and 'emotional' activity. You prepare 'mentally' when you need to relax and concentrate, chasing away any other thought or worry, so that you can control your actions: for competition, a challenge, a match, an exam.

But this is just general scheme: in some contexts the terms overlap or are interchanged. That is the case of 'psychical problem' vs. 'mental problem/ disorder'. One would expect that the former applies to serious illnesses that require a psychiatrist and the latter to minor problems whereas in the links one can see that it is the other way round: the former is a problem that is 'not 'physical' while the latter is a synonym of 'psychiatric disorder' of 'mental illness' and requires psychiatric attention.

It is impossible to make a graph here, but if we wanted to try sketch a semantic tree of the adjectives that generate 'psychically', in order to have bird's eye view of the complexity of the issue, we can make a first distinction between:

psychical [not-physical: related to spirit (soul&mind)] and

physical [material, related to the body]

'spirit'and 'psyche' relate to everything that is not material, 'psyche' then refers both to the 'mind' (that receives the perceptions from the world through the body), and the 'soul' (that may(?) receive perceptions directly from other spirits).

then, please note that 'pshychal' is on two levels (also a hyperonym ) and this is one of the reasons why things are tangled. Now we'll try to relate each term to the a 'part' of the spirit and to a discipline (p-= psychology): 'psychic' refers to the 'soul' and so does 'psychical' when it is a hyponym but the latter is also under the domain of 'psychiatry' and 'psychoanalisis'. We must also remember that also 'spiritual' can be a hyponym when it is related to 'religion': "prepare spiritually for the End of Times'"

.............. ..............................................psychical...............................................................

psichic[parap-], psychical[psychiatry, SPR], psychological [p-], mental[p- of the mind]

ESP (soul-to-soul), ESP/spirit/soul/mind, emotional sphere/personality, intellect

It leaves something (/much?) to be desired, you can expand or improve that.

  • 1
    This is wrong. Psychic has its origin in psyche, true, but in current English it only refers to ESP and other supernatural ideas. If you tried to use it for medicine and psychiatry you would almost certainly be misunderstood.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 15:30
  • 6
    Psychoanalysts often write using forms directly related to 'psychic' and they are not referring to 'psychics'. A significant fraction of them are psychiatrists. Medicine and psychiatry are perhaps the set of people least likely to misunderstand this. Commented Aug 18, 2014 at 15:44
  • 1
    @ColinFine Reference to the psyche and adjectival form, 'psychic' ARE understood and used in modern medicine and psychiatry by clinicians. Jon is correct. Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 21:32
  • Jon Jay Obermark and Feral Oink: I'm not a medic or psychiatrist, so I accept what you say about their professional use. I believe that if a specialist used the word with ordinary people they would be liable to be misunderstood.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 19:00

English is a rich language and it can be very baffling to non-native speakers. You might say there are more ways to say the same thing as there are people who would say it. A lot of this stems from it having so much that is borrowed from other languages. But that does create a minefield when it comes to constructing what appear to be simple colloquial expressions that are not intended to have subtle or hidden meanings.

Your Reddit critics probably took your otherwise clear (from what I can see, anyway) wording as a sign that you are sufficiently articulate that you should have been familiar with common words and their usage. We all run into the same problem learning other languages. I can imagine myself as an adult saying something in French, for example, similar to what my own child said once:

Please leave the door a can when you leave.

The difference between ajar and a can might seem insignificant to an inexperienced speaker.

You will make mistakes, but that's how you learn. The best you can do is ignore the (insensitive) critics but take what they have said as constructive criticism. In a case like this, look up some example sentences using the words in question, and how they are used.

Ask specific questions at sites like this one and wordreference.com to see what usage is current. Meanings and usages change with time.

To answer your three specific questions in this context

  1. Your understanding of the word psychically conflicts with current colloquial usage, which is commonly associated with psychic as it relates to mental faculties and phenomena that are unexplainable by natural laws (e.g., telepathy, clairvoyance) or relating to the soul. Secondary definitions are not commonly used unless for literary effect (to intentionally evoke alternate thoughts).
  2. Most dictionaries tend to show definitions in an order representing their more common meanings first (for the time when the dictionary was written). Less common meanings are shown later in the list of definitions.
  3. To become more fluent, deciding how and when to use specific words comes from experience - observation, trying it yourself, and correcting for cases where you are critiqued.

Veľa šťastia.


One thing I like about non-native speakers--they sometimes unearth good words that aren't commonly used. I would personally love it if psychically made a comeback, as it's much richer than mentally. "Mentally" to me only connotes the surface level of one's being, whereas "psychically" connotes more layers to one's personality / being. The downside to trying to bring back words is that sometimes you have to explain to buffoons like those Redditors what you really mean.

I would say that the average intelligent native English speaker should understand that when you say "psychically" in that context you're referring to the psyche, not to ESP, telekinesis or the like. The unusual wording may temporarily cause someone to slow down and ponder over what you're saying, but that's the great benefit of using the full range of the English language, instead of simply the most common synonyms--it forces people to think more, instead of glossing over on auto-pilot.

If you wanted a phrasing to clear up any possible confusion, you could say "How do you prepare your psyche for pain before surgery?"

As for psychologically preparing, that's totally acceptable as well, although it has a more scientific/academic ring to it. I would describe "psychologically preparing" as applying one's knowledge of the mind to get one into the proper mental state.

  • Interesting answer. Could you please clarify whether you're a native speaker or not?
    – Frantisek
    Commented Aug 20, 2014 at 21:37
  • @RiMMER Native.
    – j.i.h.
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 12:14
  • Freud and Jung (as non-native speakers) already unearthed that good word, and created a community of people who use it. I think it would be a shame to let distaste for archaic mummery put it back down again. I would like to think that we have reached the point as a culture where we can discuss unconscious or deeply singular motivation without thinking of ghosts. Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 15:51

As others have mentioned, "psychically" is used almost exclusively among laypeople in the first sense of the word, so for clarity you should avoid using it except when talking about phenomenon that have no natural explanation.

The problem with the second phrase is more subtle.

Psychology is a term for the study of the mind and so words derived from it (like "psychologically") often carry the connotation that whatever you are discussing may be related to an academic view of the mind. Because of this, it is sometimes understood to be a way of discussing mental events that is separate from the subjective experience of those events. "Mentally" is more commonly used to describe aspects of the subjective experience that are differentiable from physical and emotional sensations. It's a good catch-all for discussing almost anything related to the mind.

Additionally, I think that you may have caught some flack because you used "psychologically" to contrast against "physically." I think that had you just said that you "need to prepare psychologically" you would have been okay. Many English speakers will divide subjective experience into the physical, emotional, mental, and sometimes spiritual. When you contrast two of these areas, it may seem unnatural to a listener/reader to compare a very general category of experiences like "physical" to a specific way of treating a different general category.

As others have also mentioned, I would not take this too personally. In the first case your "mistake" was to use a word in a non-standard way which is something that people with limited vocabulary take as a mortal offense. In the second case, I think that the only mistake might have been that you used a word with a narrower connotation than you meant, but it seems unlikely that the additional specificity could substantially change your meaning.

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