Hallucinations and hearing voices
Hallucinations refer to the experience of hearing, seeing or smelling things that are not there.
Often, these can be as intense and as real as sensory perceptions. There are different types of hallucinations.
- Hearing voices speaking when there is no-one there is known as an auditory hallucination. Voices can talk about very personal matters, which can be quite frightening. Often, other sounds like music, animal calls and the telephone ringing can be heard. These may be experienced as coming from anywhere in external space or ‘in the mind’. The noise volume varies from very quiet to very loud. The experience is different for different people.
- Seeing images when there is nothing in the environment to account for it is a visual hallucination. Simple visual hallucinations may include flashes or geometric shapes. Complex visual hallucinations may show faces, animals or scenes and may be called ‘visions’.
- Other types of hallucinations include feelings on the skin, smelling or tasting things that cannot be explained.
Causes of hallucinations
Intense negative emotions such as stress or grief can make people particularly vulnerable to hallucinations, as can conditions such as hearing or vision loss, and drugs or alcohol. It is believed that the mental processes which operate during hallucinations include memories and images which the brain has difficulty controlling. The way that individuals react to their hallucinations also impacts on how they feel about them.
People who are at increased risk of hallucinations
Hallucinations occur frequently in psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic disorder and borderline personality disorder, as well as in other disorders such as dementia and Parkinson’s Disease. Auditory hallucinations are typically more common in psychiatric disease, and visual hallucinations in disorders of old age,
People who experience hallucinations do not necessarily suffer from a mental illness. It is quite common for people in the general population to experience passing and infrequent episodes of hallucination, and many people recover completely. People who have ongoing experiences which are distressing should seek professional advice.
Signs and symptoms
It is possible to lead a productive and meaningful life with hallucinations. For many, however, hallucinated voices or visions can be distressing and worrying. If you are troubled by hallucinations, it is best to seek help from your GP or mental health services, as they will help to work out what is causing the problem.
Treatment of hallucinations
There are different treatment options depending on the cause of hallucinations. Forms of help include psychological therapies and medications. A well-organised system of help from friends, family and professionals provides the most effective treatment option.
Living with hallucinations
Everyday strategies are very helpful for coping with hallucinations. These include:
- Connecting with people with similar experiences.
- Knowing that friends and/or family are there to provide support.
- Finding a meaning and purpose in your life.
- Accepting that it is an aspect of your personality which makes you who you are.
- Understanding that many people with hallucinations live happy and successful lives.
Practical advice for family and friends
- Accept that the person is experiencing voices or visions. These experiences are like real perceptions and can be very puzzling and frightening. Showing love and support will help the person to feel safe expressing their concerns to you.
- Encourage the person to describe their experiences. What is it like? Do they hear different voices? What do the voices say? These may account for feelings and emotions.
- Suggest that the person might be able to draw on their own particular strength to help them cope with or overcome the hallucinations. Their strengths may include problem solving), the practice of relaxation techniques, or verbalising their emotions.
- Do fun things together.
- Encourage the person to meet other people who experience hallucinations, and to read on the topic.
- Encourage people to attend support groups such as the Hearing Voices Network Australia (external site).
Where to get help
- See your GP or mental health worker
- Ring healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222
- RuralLink for Rural and remote areas 1800 552 002.
Clinical Research Centre
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.