Blog: Is Anybody There? An experience of hearing voices

As part of our mission to raise awareness and dispel misinformation around mental health issues, we’ve been hearing from supporters, staff, and volunteers about their experiences of mental health issues. Today’s blog is on the subject of hearing voices.

Is Anybody There?

Have you ever heard someone call your name and then found there was no-one there? This is a common phenomenon – about 75% of the population have had a one-off experience of this kind. For many people, it will never happen again; but for about 3-10% of the population, hearing voices – medically known as “auditory hallucination” – is a regular occurrence.

If you have ever heard a voice, were you alarmed when you heard it? Professor Marius Romme describes this as the “Startling Phase”, where the voice hearer is shocked by the experience. For many, it settles down – the hearer can form a companionable relationship with the voices they hear, or even take comfort in them. It’s common, for example, for people to hear the voice of a lost loved one, or someone they know. What matters, according to Romme, is how the individual reacts to the voices – particularly whether they are afraid of them – and so the content of the voices can make a real difference to the experience. For some hearers, voices can be persistently negative or insulting, or even be recognisable of the voice of someone who has caused harm in the past – a childhood abuser, for example. Every person has a unique voice pattern – which can make it difficult for many hearers to believe that they aren’t actually hearing that person’s voice.
The content of the voices isn’t the only thing that can cause issues, however: the volume of voices – both in number and in loudness – can be disruptive. There are a number of factors that can make the voices more or less active: a lack of sleep can make the voices more audible, and for me, not smoking cigarettes and practicing meditation can make the voices recede, although they won’t go away altogether.
When the voices are particularly active, it can lead to what mental health services call “psychosis”: when someone may be so absorbed by the ‘other reality’ presented by the voices that they are not completely in touch with the reality we all share. Other types of hallucination can lead to, and be present within, this experience: visual images, smells, and physical sensations among them.
Personally, I first heard voices when I was 5 or 6 years old. There were two men, unknown to me, in my room – at ceiling height, oddly – talking about taking me away. I was frightened, and told my father, who reassured me. I next heard voices in my teens, and they became a problem when I was 19 and was detained in psychiatric hospital for other symptoms of psychosis. I currently hear voices a lot of the time – but as they’re relatively quiet, I can screen them out, and they don’t bother me too much. They don’t get in the way of me doing paid work, or having an active life.
I’d prefer not to hear voices, but I can live with them. My #1 rule is never to act on anything the voices say unless I have considered it properly and decided that it’s a good idea – so if they tell me that I don’t like eating a particular food when I normally do, I will ignore them and eat it anyway. This rule is particularly helpful if they’re telling me to jump out of a window, which they have done in the past.

Coping with Voices

  • Sleeping, eating, being active and occupied are important elements of self-care for anyone – but perhaps more so for a voice hearer.
  • Distraction – for instance listening to music – can help to manage voices on a day-to-day basis.
  • Some people give their voices a space during the day – say, at 8pm every night – where they can listen to them and, if they want, interact with them. 
  • Talking therapies, such as psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be very useful, and many find that complementary therapies can help.
  • Mind have resources about hearing voices on their website, here.
  • For those in Bristol, Bristol Hearing Voices Network can offer a valuable space to talk about your experiences and receive support.

Further Reading:

  • “Accepting Voices” – Prof. Marius Romme & Sandra Escher
  • “Hearing Voices – A Common Human Experience” – John Watkins