While hearing voices can be a symptom of some mental health problems, not everyone who hears voices has a mental illness. Hearing voices is actually quite a common experience: around one in ten of us will experience it at some point in our lives.
Hearing voices is sometimes called an ‘auditory hallucination’. Some people have other hallucinations, such as seeing, smelling, tasting or feeling things that don’t exist outside their mind. Whatever your experience, you’re not alone.
What’s it like to hear voices?
Everyone’s experience of hearing voices is different. The voices can vary in how often you hear them, what they sound like, what they say, and whether they’re familiar or unfamiliar.
Sometimes hearing voices can be upsetting or distressing. They may say hurtful or frightening things. However, for some people the voices may be neutral or more positive. You may feel differently about your voices at different times in your life.
Why do people hear voices?
It’s common to think that hearing voices must be the sign of a mental health condition, but in fact many people who are not mentally unwell hear voices.
People may hear voices because of:
- traumatic life experiences, which may be linked to post-traumatic stress disorder
- stress or worry
- lack of sleep
- extreme hunger
- taking recreational drugs, or as a side-effect of prescribed drugs
- mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression
If you’re hearing voices, talk to your GP. They will usually check for any physical reasons you could be hearing voices before diagnosing you with a mental health condition or referring you to a psychiatrist.
If your voices are the result of a mental health condition, you may be offered:
- talking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT can help you learn what triggers your voices and how to manage them. It can also help you stand up to them if they’re critical or negative
- medication, most likely an antipsychotic drug. This may stop the voices, make them quieter or make you feel less concerned by them. You may only need medication for a short time while you learn other techniques to manage the voices
You may also be offered family intervention (where support is provided to both you and your family), art or creative therapy, or therapy for experiences of trauma.
Rethink has more information about the treatment you may be offered.
Ways you can look after yourself
Sometimes, voices are a problem because of your relationship with them. Changing your relationship can make you feel differently about them.
Understanding your voices
Understanding how your voices relate to your life may help you to manage their voices.
This could include keeping a diary of your voices. You could note what they say, how they make you feel and how you manage them. This may help you to notice patterns of what makes you feel bad, what makes you feel good, or what triggers your voices.
Some people find that standing up to the voices, choosing when to pay attention to them and when to ignore them, and focusing on voices that are more positive can help them feel more in control. Talking therapy can help you with this, as it can be difficult on your own.
Keeping busy can distract you from the voices, help you express yourself and feel more relaxed and allow you to meet new people. You could try listening to music or an audiobook, keeping up with hobbies or doing something creative such as writing or painting.
Sharing your experiences
There can be a stigma around hearing voices which can make it hard to talk about them, even to friends or family. Peer support groups can provide a non-judgemental space where you can feel heard, accepted and less alone. Some groups are in person such as the ones listed on the Hearing Voices Network website. Others are online, such as the Intervoice forum, Voice Collective forum and Mind’s Side by Side community.
Looking after yourself
Though it can be difficult, it is important to look after and be kind to yourself. This can include things like eating a healthy diet, finding ways to stay physically active, managing stress or spending time outdoors. It may help to set goals around these activities and to reward yourself for working towards them.
Further information and resources
Educational Voice Hearing Network aims to improve understanding of what it’s like for people who hear voices. They have a guide for employers who want to support people who hear voices in the workplace.
Hearing Voices Network provides information and support for people who hear voices who have other unusual sensory experiences.
Intervoice is an international network for people who hear voices. They have information on living with voices and offer workshops and events.
Mind has more information about living with voices, including personal stories from people who hear voices.
Understanding Voices has information on different approaches to hearing voices and ways to manage distressing voices.
Voice Collective supports children and young people who hear voices, see visions, or have other unusual sensory experiences or beliefs.