Hearing voices form a common part of auditory hallucinations, a symptom of certain mental illnesses. Most people will jump to the conclusion that hearing voices is just another name for schizophrenia or psychosis. Whilst it is a common symptom of those conditions, it can just as easily be part of other illnesses.
Research has shown that lots of people who don't have any history or diagnosis of mental illness also regularly hear voices. How many times have you thought you heard someone say your name, only to turn around and find there was no-one there?
Hearing voices is not a sign that you're going insane or 'cracking up'. Around 1 in 10 of us will hear a voice that isn't there at some point in our lives but, as we said, you may not need any sort of medical diagnosis to hear them. There are some cultures round the world for whom hearing voices is a normal part of their lives. They consider them to be spiritual guides or 'guardian angels'.
As the name suggests, hearing voices involves hearing a voice of a person who isn't there with you, or a voice that no-one else around you can hear. The experience of hearing voices will be different for different people.
Some hear the voices, like most of us do, through our sense of hearing and some will find the voice sounding like it's inside their head. The voices may be male or female, be the voice of someone you know or a completely new one. You can hear it in a different accent, or even a different language than your own. Some voices are whisper quiet, others quite loud, whilst others are routinely conversational in tone. Some people hear voices all the time, others only hear them now and again.
Don't think that the voices you hear will necessarily be evil, disturbing or negative. Many people hear voices that are positive, inspiring and quite comforting to them. Often the voices change depending how you feel. If you're going through a difficult time, then the voices may become more distressing.
There are many different causes or reasons why people hear voices. They generally fall into two categories; those caused by mental illness and those that occur as a result of life experiences.
A number of mental illness can (but not always) include hearing voices as part of their symptoms. You can find out more about each on by clicking the name. These include (but not exclusively) :
- Bipolar Disorder; during a manic episode you may hear voices telling you to be more reckless than usual and can be quite negative or threatening.
- Depression; in the worst cases, the voices may quite negative and encourage you to do things that may harm yourself.
- Eating Disorders; voices may be heard telling you to overeat (binge) or not eat at all.
- PTSD; voices can come a reminders of past trauma.
- Psychosis; hearing voices can make differentiating fact from fiction even harder than normal.
- Schizophrenia / Schizoaffective Disorder; voices can blur the line between reality and fantasy and can induce paranoia.
We all go through tough times in life. Many of these can mean we hear voices, even as a 'one-off'. This isn't an exhaustive list, but can include:
- Sexual / Emotional / Physical Abuse; often, after a period of time, you begin to hear the voice of the abuser.
- Bereavement; It is fairly common to hear the voice of a close family member or friend after they have passed away. It may give you comfort in the short term but, if it becomes a problem, then seek help.
- Bullying: if you've been a victim of bullying in the past, you can hear the voice of the bully which makes you feel anxious or scared.
- Drugs / alcohol; If you over use drugs or drink, then you may begin to hear voices. It can also occur as a side-effect to drinking whilst on certain medication.
- Spiritual; You may hear voices as part of a spiritual event. Some people believe them to be either angels or demons. If they are causing you distress, please seek help.
- Tiredness; A lack of sleep can do some pretty strange things to you. You may hear voices just as you fall asleep (known as 'hypnogogic') or just as you wake up (hypnopompic) which is due to your brain partly being in dream state and usually stop once you're fully awake / asleep. This isn't the same as 'dreaming'.
Hearing voices of people who aren't there is often a cause of those who live with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or a form of dementia, but it can occur in people with no relation to mental illness at all (see above).
There are some reasons why people hear voices, or make them worse. These include heavy drinking (alcohol), taking drugs (cannabis, so-called 'street' drugs or legal highs) and stressful life events such as divorce, bereavement, moving house or pressures at work.
For some people, hearing voices doesn't cause a problem in their lives, so don't seek any treatment. If they are a comfort and don't cause any problems, then many people live with them quite happily.
If the voices are distressing or having a negative impact on your life, then you should seek help, especially if the voice is telling you to do something bad including hurting yourself or someone else.
Medication (antipsychotics) can be beneficial when it comes to hearing voices. They shouldn't be considered a 'cure', but they can help make them seem more distant or less noticeable. Like any medication, they won't work the same for everyone and there are side-effects to consider.
If you live with hearing voices, there may be some organisations on our Where To Turn pages that can help you. If not, and you know of one, please let us know and we'll look into it.