What are voices?
We might say someone is ‘hearing voices’ if you hear a voice when no-one is present with you, or which other people with you cannot hear.
People have many different experiences of hearing voices. Some people don’t mind their voices or simply find them irritating or distracting, while others find them frightening or intrusive.
It’s common to think that if you hear voices you must have a mental health problem.
But research shows that lots of people hear voices and many of them are not mentally unwell. It’s a relatively common human experience.
“I hear hundreds of voices. Partly relatives, friends and people in the media.”
What kind of voices do people hear?
There are lots of different ways we all hear voices. For example, you might:
- hear your name called when there is no one with you
- hear or see things as you are falling asleep
- experience the voices as being in your head
- feel voices are coming from outside and heard through your ears like other sounds
- feel as if you are hearing other people’s thoughts or as if other people can hear your thoughts
- experience nasty or threatening voices that tell you to do dangerous and unacceptable things or try to control you
- hear a voice that feels friendly but encourages you to do things that might not be good for you
- hear a kind supportive voice that helps you
- hear more than one voice and they may talk or argue with each other
“I remember hearing this malicious whispering which I assumed was coming from other passengers on the train…it was like being able to hear people’s thoughts and in my paranoid state these were always malevolent and critical.”
Why do I hear voices?
There are lots of reasons why you might hear voices. Here are some of them:
- Voices as you fall asleep or wake up – these are to do with your brain being partly in a dreaming state. The voice might call your name or say something brief. You might also see strange things or misinterpret things you can see. These experiences usually stop as soon as you are fully awake.
- Lack of sleep – sleep problems cause you to hear voices or have other sensory experiences that you can’t explain in everyday ways.
- Hunger – you may hear voices if you are very hungry or if you haven’t eaten much recently.
- Physical illness – if you have a high temperature and are delirious you may hear voices or see and say strange things.
- Drugs – you may hear or see things after taking recreational drugs or as a side effect of some prescribed drugs. You might also have these experiences when you are coming off drugs.
- Stress or worry – you may hear voices while feeling very stressed, anxious or worried.
- Bereavement – if you have recently lost someone very close you may hear them talking to you or feel that they are with you. This experience is very common and some people find it comforting.
- Abuse or bullying – you may start hearing voices after being abused or bullied. This can include hearing the voice of someone who abused you being unkind or threatening or ordering you to harm yourself or do things that you know are wrong.
- Other traumatic experiences – you may hear voices as a result of other traumas, which can be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and with dissociative disorders.
- Spiritual experiences – some people hear a voice as part of a spiritual experience. This may be a very special experience and one that you feel helps you make sense of your life. Or you may feel as though you are hearing the voice of an evil spirit.
- Mental health problems – you may hear voices as a symptom of some mental health problems, including psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder or severe depression.
“I started hearing voices when I was 16. It resulted from a traumatic event in my life that led to weeks of a manic period.”