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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


Voices are perceived by the hearer as being very real and are often accompanied by other sensory disturbances: smell, touch, sight, taste, which may reinforce what a person hears. Although we talk about voices, these may be in the form of other sounds, some of the more common ones: alarms, sirens, babies crying.

Voices come from thought processes but seem as if they are real. In the early stages we know this will be difficult for you to understand and this whole new experience can be frightening and tiring. You might try to make sense of the voices and feel you have no alternative but to pay attention to them while excluding everything else around you.

It can be difficult in the early stages to make sense of voices. Don’t be afraid of your voices, they can’t harm you.

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

It is important to find your own way of manging your voices but you might want to consider some distractions: reading, writing a safety plan, going for a walk, or listening to music. But consider: Who can you phone? Do you have a safe place?

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? Try to recognise the stresses and situations which trigger them.

You might want to write your thoughts down to declutter your mind. It might help you gain a different perspective on your thoughts and what the voices say.

Focus on mindfulness and breathing techniques

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

It’s important to talk about it

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

You might support the person hearing voices – what can you do?

Be honest, say you cannot hear anything, but acknowledge that for the person the experience is real. But try to take into account that any dialogue you have with the person will be perceived as including the voices too and 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 and 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 but rather they may be afraid.

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

There might be hidden agendas behind your voices

Voices want to be powerful and try to:

  • Keep you isolated
  • Make relationships difficult with others
  • Stop you from doing new things
  • Prevent input from others supporting you in recovery
  • Persuade you not to seek medical support
  • Encourage you to self-harm
  • Tell you to move away from familiar surroundings
  • Demean others around you

These voices can make you believe they have all the answers

They can:

  • Give you false beliefs, such as black and white, or good and bad
  • Mix up what you think you believe
  • Give you ultimatums or change these to leave you anxious about what will happen if you don’t follow their plans
  • Become overwhelming and disruptive
  • Withdraw you to confuse you and pull you in
  • Change their tone and content to bewilder you.

Sensory Disturbances

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.

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.

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

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.

Remember, any sensory disturbances will reflect your own life experiences or maybe your fears and anxieties.

What can you do?

Medical support might help with these disturbances and hallucinations but try not to give your experiences a meaning. You might want to:

  • Find a smell which evokes a safe experience and keep it nearby you
  • Close your eyes and refocus
  • Turn a light on and off to break the image
  • Walk out of the room for a few seconds
  • Focus on a favourite picture
  • Look in a mirror to reinforce your own image
  • Focus on your phone screen saver
  • Text or phone someone who you feel safe with
  • Practice mindfulness: Look up to the sky – focus on a cloud or bird. Take a minute to feel your feet to feel grounded. Be aware of slowing down your breathing.

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

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