Experiences of psychosis

Hearing voices, seeing things, and unusual beliefs

This section is mostly about people’s experiences of hearing voices and seeing things that others around them don’t hear or see. ‘Hallucinations’, as they are often called, are what people hear, see, feel - or even smell and taste - that don’t appear to be sensed by other people. For most people that we spoke to, such experiences could be very frightening: for example, having voices say nasty things about them. However, other people talked about nice but unusual experiences, such as hearing beautiful music that no-one else could hear, or hearing a voice giving you compliments. Even so, a few people said that helpful voices could turn cruel. One person said that his voices could sometimes tell him to get better, but when he felt unwell they persecuted him.
This section is also about the unusual beliefs that people have held. For example, people have felt they were being persecuted, that MI6 was monitoring them, that the world was about to end or even that they were possessed by the Devil. Other people thought that they could communicate with famous figures who were now dead, or that they could predict things that would happen in the future. For more information about how people coped with these experiences see the ‘Strategies for everyday coping’ section.
Hearing Voices
Many people we spoke to heard voices saying different things to them. Some people heard a voice, or voices, who spoke directly to them, whilst other people heard voices talking about them. Sometimes voices said the nastiest things people thought about themselves, or were like a ‘running commentary’ on what they were doing, such as ‘Robert is rolling a cigarette’. Others felt that voices could sometimes be helpful and act as a ‘guide’ or a ‘teacher’. People sometimes heard the voice of a relative who was now dead, or the voice of someone who had abused them as a child.
Sometimes people could recognise their voices - as they sounded like the voice of someone they knew - but other times they couldn’t. Sometimes it was impossible to say whether the voice was male or female. Some people had difficulty separating what real people had actually said from the other voices they could hear. For example, Annie thought that her friends were being ‘bitchy’ about her, and now doesn’t talk to these friends any more as she isn’t sure what they actually said.
Voices could also appear to come from objects or animals. People heard voices coming from smoke alarms, telephones, answering machines, televisions, radios, fridges and vacuum cleaners. People also talked about how voices could appear to sound very realistic.
A few people felt that they didn’t hear voices as such, but instead heard their ‘inner soul’ or ‘subconscious’. Devon said it wasn't really a voice but his  ‘inner soul’. Other people didn’t hear voices but heard other sounds like ‘buzzing’ noises or gunshots.
Over time, people developed different relationships with their voices, and they either found techniques to help them ignore them or they understood more about them. In general, people eventually found better ways of coping with them such as' only listening to them at certain times of day; seeing their voices as voicing their inner fears; managing to reduce stress or noise; or even managing to laugh at them. For more about these strategies see ‘Strategies for everyday coping’.
Seeing and feeling things.
People we spoke to often talked about seeing and feeling things that others could not, such as skulls in the wall, or dead people on the street. Other people talked about less dramatic things such as seeing lights glowing brighter, or colours that seemed to be more intense. Whilst for some people these experiences seemed normal, or at least something that they could cope with, for others these were very distressing experiences. For example, a carer talked about their son ringing from hospital saying he had seen the dog being killed by spiders.
People also talked about being able to feel things such as being pushed, a tugging on their hair, or sensations like spiders crawling on them. Two women believed that they had been sexually assaulted at one time, but afterwards realised this couldn’t have happened. Tim thought that there were rats in his throat, and Kirsty can remember that even when she was a child she felt that there were strange things in her food when she swallowed it.
People learned to cope with these experiences by reasoning their way through them. For example Annie said that it was like thinking that someone had set the house on fire but having to reason that this was very unlikely to have happened. Other people used visual imagery to relax.
Unusual Beliefs
People we spoke to had often believed unusual things that others did not - sometimes called ‘delusions’. For example, Rachel said she believed that the earth was about to be invaded, while another felt that they were about to be executed. Georgina talked about her son having ‘intrusive thoughts’ that things were centring on, and referring to, him (e.g. the television was sending him messages) or that people were looking at him strangely when he was out. Now he is able to handle these thoughts better. Georgina was told that her son was talking about God to people on the street when he hadn’t previously been religious.
Many people had intensely religious beliefs, when they hadn’t previously been religious, or at least these weren’t the same as their usual religious beliefs.
Other people became very suspicious of authority and felt that ‘everyone had an agenda’, a ‘system controlled everything’, or that people were taking part in secret plots. A few people felt particularly worried about political threats such as the ‘Russians were coming’ or that people from the IRA were lurking in lanes.
Whilst some people we spoke to - when they were feeling ‘well’ - thought that these experiences were very strange, others talked about discovering more about their own spirituality or psychic beliefs after these experiences (see ‘Spirituality and religion’ for more information).

Last reviewed July 2017.
Last updated April 2014.


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