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a guide to voices and sensory disturbances

Voices and sensory disturbances come from thought processes and are perceived by the person as being very real

Experiencing auditory hallucinations, or hearing voices that are not actually present, is a manifestation of thought processes that can feel very real. Hearing voices is often accompanied by other sensory disturbances: smell, touch, sight and taste. That further reinforces what a person hears. Although we talk about voices, these may be other sounds, such as alarms, sirens or even crying.

You might be distracted; isolated and depressed; or suspicious, accusatory and anxious. But what can you do?

In the early stages, it can be difficult for a person to understand. A person might try to make sense of the voices and feel they have no alternative but to pay attention to them while excluding everything else. This is a new experience that can be exhausting and frightening. Don’t be afraid of your voices, they can’t harm you.

Who hears these voices?

It’s important to know that hearing voices doesn’t always mean someone has a mental illness and it’s not just people who receive mental health treatment that experience this. Contrary to what some might think, hearing things that aren’t there isn’t only limited to people with schizophrenia. It can happen to people with depression, severe anxiety and PTSD too. Studies have shown that hearing voices is common in the United Kingdom, with around 12% of children and up to 15% of adults experiencing it.

What voices can tell you?

These voices can:

  • Give you false beliefs
  • Mix up what you think you believe
  • Become overwhelming and disruptive
  • Can confuse you
  • Change their tone and content to bewilder you.

As a result, they may:

  • Keep you isolated
  • Make relationships difficult with others
  • Stop you from doing new things
  • Encourage you to self-harm
  • Tell you to move away from familiar surroundings.

Not all these voices are negative. Some voices can: 

  • Provide support
  • Be a form of companionship
  • Be a source of helpful advice
  • Be a source of creativity.

Sensory Disturbances

Smell

Everyday objects may not smell as they usually do. One of the more common olfactory hallucinations is the smell of burning accompanied sometimes by taste. Some smells can be more pronounced or seem quite terrible.

Touch

Solid objects may take on a different form or the sense of touch may be more personal. Members have described solid objects becoming flexible or experiencing the sensation of something touching them.

Taste

Some food may taste different or medication may seem to have been tampered with. For some people, this may be supported by smell.

Sight

Words or images can appear to be distorted and images or colours can appear more pronounced.
Sometimes everything can appear dirty – for example, it may seem that items are covered by a film of dust and grease.

Sound

 You may hear things out of the blue even when it really isn’t happening. Whether it’s an everyday sound or someone talking to you, these voices can either be distressing or helpful.

What can I do when I hear these voices? 

Organise your thoughts

It is important to find your own way of managing these voices, but you might want to consider some distractions like:

  • Reading
  • Writing a safety plan
  • Going for a walk
  • Listening to music.

You can make sense of your voices by building a profile:

  • What do they say?
  • What do the voices want from you?
  • How do they relate to the experiences you’ve had?
  • What are my triggers?

Writing down your thoughts can clear your mind and give you a fresh perspective on what the voices are saying. The problem is often more about how we relate to our voices than their presence.

Focus on mindfulness and breathing techniques

Think of your voices as experiences that are passing through your mind, which come and go over time. Use them as an image and imagine what these voices say written on an object. Concentrate on breathing slowly and tune in to sensations in your physical body to connect with the present moment.

Talk about it

Keeping quiet about your voices will only reinforce your relationship with them – the more able you are to talk about them, the more control you will have over them. Let others who are close to you know what helps you manage the voices. 

How can I support someone who is hearing voices? 

Be honest. Say you cannot hear anything but acknowledge that the experience is real for the person. Consider that any dialogue you have with the person will be perceived as including the voices too. Although behaviour may appear irrational, there will be underlying logic to the person, which will help if you allow this as far as is safe to do so.

It will take courage to disclose voices, so try to be patient. Keep in mind that the relationship between the hearer and their voices will be exclusive. It’s not that they don’t want to share their experience with you; rather, they may be afraid.

Although it won’t be easy initially, try and persuade the person to seek medical support. Ask what helps and then you can begin to work together to challenge the voices.

support

If you or someone you know needs support, our Advice and Support Service is open Monday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm. Our advisers can direct you to local support services that best suit your needs, including our own Change Mental Health services. We offer initial advice on money worries and help to deal with emergencies.

Contact 0808 8010 515, email us at advice@changemh.org or fill out the enquiry form on the Advice and Support Service page.

This resource was kindly put together by Hearing Voices service users in Fife, from people affected by psychosis and schizophrenia.

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