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.
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.
Ceridwen is unemployed/disabled, single, and hoping soon to live independently. Ethnic background/nationality' White British.
The voices were telling me how worthless I was and how nobody cared, and how pointless my existence was, and that I would be better off not on this earth. And, I thought, well, you know, nobody’s listening to me so may be the voices are right. And then the depression would kick in and I’d think, well there’s nothing worth living for so I’d try.
I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to be rid of the voices. I mean I heard the voices in my sleep. I’ve had no respite for nearly 15 years of voices. And that’s so wearing. That just grinds you down. And they are horrible. Some people’s voices are mildly derogatory, mine are abusive and threatening. There are four men. I don’t know who they are. I just know they are my voices, and they are just vile.
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Kirsty is a volunteer with Rethink and a local housing organisation; she is single with no children. Ethnic background' White British.
And sometimes you get extremely kind voices as well. I got reminded to take my medication when I came out of hospital at one point. I was having difficulty, I didn’t have a, a proper system for sorting out my medication, and I saw a friend of mine on the bus, and he was going up to the psychiatric unit to see some friends, and he was like, “Oh hi. How you’re doing?” I said, “Yes, fine. But I keep forgetting to take my medication and that.” And I suppose that was half past one, two o’clock in the afternoon. Around came 5 o’clock and I got in my head the voice, ‘medication’, which was the call at the hospital at 5 o’clock for people to come and queue up for medication, you know, so, they can be, you know, that’s a really practical salvation as well. But they can boost your confidence or whatever, you know. Sometimes obviously they can boost it a bit too much and you get on your high horse, but you know, they can be extremely useful and kind and helpful as well, yes.
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Tim is unemployed, single and has no children. Ethnic background' White British.
Nowadays as I say the voices say, ‘hang yourself, cut your throat, you’re evil, you’re damned’. And I say do it tomorrow and not today. Cut your throat, hang yourself, tomorrow. That’s the way it works for me. I still, I still hear the voices all the time, very dimu … Dr [Name] said the drugs will prevent the worst and he was right after 76. Nowadays hang yourself, cut you… I think I’m damned because I said, “There’s no God. It’s all your fault,” to Mum in October 69 when I hitchhiked to India. I can’t help that. I’ve never touched anyone and always been very gentle and that’s it.
And have the voices changed over the years?
Well in [place name] as I said I was hearing the voice of God, Beethoven, Jesus, the Devil, the Virgin Mary, Samson, Mao Tse Tung, Capablanca, Brahms, Bruckner. Nowadays’ just hang yourself, cut your throat, you’re evil, really damned’ because I’m on the injection and the injection has curbed them down, but it doesn’t take them away completely that’s why I have a poor prognosis.
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.
Margaret is a therapist, single and has no children. Ethnic background' White British.
To start with they were always outside, so if I was in a building I could hear them outside the window. That’s how they started, so I always thought they, if and voices very clever they will take on the form of another person’s voice so it will appear as it’s coming from that person. So they’re very clever. And when you don’t know that this is what’s happening, you’re completely taken in and think these people are abusing you. And then you know, as things got worse and worse I’d hear them on the phone when I was speaking to friends, family on the phone, in the background which led me to believe that things were being done electronically. So it’s just a, process of reasoning how, you know, how am I hearing these things. Where is it coming from? Who’s doing it to me? So I had like ten years of that, you know, and it’s and it’s just your mind trying to ration and reason with how, where’s it coming from. Because obviously you’ve got no concept that it’s coming from inside your head because it’s too realistic. So … So yes, then I’d start hearing them from various electronic devices, you know, if there was a, say a smoke alarm in the corner of the room, they’d emanate from there. So it’s, it’s the voices. They’re I mean my frame of reference now that it’s another facet of my soul that’s doing it. But it’s actually a, an entity with its own thoughts. Psychiatrists will tell you that it’s just your own thoughts, but you know, I don’t buy that at all. This thing thinks for itself, and tries to trip you up and play games with you, every step of the way. There’s no doubt about that. Yes. And then a, you know, a bit later I actually started hearing them inside my head. That was really scary at first. So then I had I don’t know if it’s helpful to like go into the delusions that it created, just trying to figure out what was happening.
But then I thought oh gosh, I’m linked up to satellites and all sorts, and they’re beaming voices actually into my head. I was thinking, how are they doing this?
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’.
André works as a volunteer, and is currently single with no children. Ethnic background: White British.
Yes, you hear voices in third person, and that feels from a male. And you believe that, not inside your head, outside your head. They don’t control you, and you don’t control them. They don’t tell you to do things. Don’t give you orders. And they are there constantly, when I’m sitting here with you, I’m distracted, but as soon as you leave I will hear them. Or on the bus I will hear them. And it’s generally like just a form of commentary. Sometimes it’s positive, sometimes it’s negative. Sometimes it pejorative, sometimes not so. And, yes, pretty much constantly really.
And what are the voices talking about?
Usually a running commentary on what I’m doing. But I also think I can hear the police, or I’m under surveillance or I can hear my Father, or I can hear. SAS or security services. But I do have excellent hearing, so you never know. And they’re certainly not voices coming in from inside my head. Like now I can’t hear any voice. I can’t hear any voices up there or here. So when you get distracted when I’m talking to you, or socially with friends or family I don’t hear them. When I’m by myself, I hear the voices again. I might just have excellent hearing, who knows?
And what do you think about the voices, do you …?
Well I try and ignore them as much as possible. Although it’s difficult, very often I usually end up responding to the voices. So if you’re by yourself you’d hear the voices and respond to them, which is always tricky. That’s borderline schizophrenia for you. It’s difficult. The most acute stage of course is up to 20 or 30, up to 30 or so. But post 30s, I don’t think it’s because the voices go, it’s just as you get better at handling your existence, and handling the pressure, and knowing not to respond to them, if that makes sense.
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Ron is a trainer and consultant, having worked in the field of mental health for several years. He is married with seven children. Ethnic background' White British.
I started looking at the different characteristics of voices, and people I think sometimes wonder why I manage to do that and I think it’s because, even though I, I wasn’t involved in the church for years and years and years, I still remember that one of the things in church that we did was that we looked at the characteristics of God and that each part of the Trinity, if you believe in the Trinity, had different characteristics and so I started using that stuff on my voices, that my voices had different characteristics that some were male, some were female, some were positive, some were negative, some were abusive, some were non-abusive, some were advisory, some were commanding and I started looking at those characteristics and I started breaking them down, and that formulated I guess the, the start of the Working with Voices workbook started then, and, you know, and it didn’t come out till much later but that’s when it really started. And I guess I started it on myself by, by looking at those, and I found by looking at the characteristics I was able to start naming my voices properly and saying, “This is [name] this is the Priest, this is my father. This is other people in my life.” And, and I was able to do that with all but one voice. Yeah.
So the voices were people you would known in your past?
Yeah, or like people, not necessarily, [clears throat] sort of voice that was like a teacher a guide, so I called it teacher and, and because it had a name it, it wasn’t scary you know when it has no name and no substance and no characteristics it’s scary but once you start putting all these things in place it’s not scary any more and so, yeah, I guess that’s how I went about that.
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.
Simon studied architecture, took medical retirement, lives by himself and has no children. Ethnic background' White British.
I started seeing things, I ended up thinking I was Jesus Christ. Yeah.
What types of things were you seeing?
Well... well Jesus Christ, only a face really looking like Jesus Christ appeared in front of me and said, “You’re just like me.” And so I, in the end, I ended up believing I was Jesus Christ. Yeah.
And what was your experience of seeing things? What did it feel like?
I thought it was natural, you know, it was, I thought it was all part of reality. Yes.
So were you surprised when somebody said that you needed to see a psychiatrist?
Yes, I mean my first thought was oh good, someone wise to talk to, and yes, I didn’t think anything of it, you know, I thought I was, I think I thought I was Jesus Christ and yes.
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Nada does voluntary work, is single and has no children. Ethnic background' British Indian
And then I guess the delusions still carrying on so the first day that I get put into a room, in there, this is when I actually start kind of hallucinating a bit as well I suppose, and I haven’t slept for I don’t know how long by this point as well really and I see like people kind of bashing those sort of gratings on the ceiling and I can see loads of people like trying to bash their way through like with whatever they were armed with. Trying to get in to attack me and they looked pretty real but it is an hallucination because there
can’t be that many people fitting into the small kind of grating do you know what I mean and I know I have tripped a lot and stuff but this is none drug related you know what I mean and as, you know, it’s almost more, it was almost more real than a lot of the tripping experiences I had.
I was going to say how did it compare?
I’d say even more vivid in a way but there was still some detachment there, you know, in the fact that just sort of perspective wise it can’t quite fit, you know, there can’t actually be people in that space but it looks like there are loads, you know what, I don’t know if you have, well from my experience of tripping before, I have often seen ghouls and kind of like you know what I mean like sort of beings and stuff that you know, so it was almost that kind of thing I suppose but they seemed more human than, than other [laughter] if that makes sense.
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Annie is a student, single and has no children. Ethnic background' White British.
And like the other week, I thought that my hands were aging, like every half an hour on the half an hour. Because… like physically see them getting older. And then, you know, but I knew, I knew like cognitively you don’t age every half hour on the half hour, but yet I could actually see that I was aging and so I was like doing my working with like …I pulled my sleeves down so I couldn’t actually see what was going on and still that is something I still struggle with. That’s definitely, I would say, you know, in the here and now, that is something that is definitely around for me, the idea that you know, my hands are looking ancient. When they’re not really.
I should imagine that’s very difficult to sort of over-rule yourself?
It is. It is really hard, yes, that idea of being over, yes it is hard to over rule yourself, because it is so kind of there. You can’t over … well you can and you can’t over rule yourself. You can’t really. Or I think you can may be in terms of your behaviour, but you can’t in terms of your thoughts. I think that’s probably as good as it gets with me, is not to act it out. Is not in terms of mental health services that’s what they sort of say to me, because it’s like, you know, may be you won’t ever get rid of all those kind of thoughts, but it’s not acting them out, and it’s not kind of escalating it into the real world. It’s like, you know, if you think your house is on fire, you know, but like what per cent of you knows it’s not on fire. Don’t phone the fire brigade. Yes. Because actually the person, mental health services are quite, a little bit concerned, the fact that I pulled down my sleeves, because then that was like a really small thing that I’d actually modified my behaviour.
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.
Social care assistant, married with adult children. Ethnic background/nationality' Black Afro-Caribbean (born in West Indies); in UK for 41 years
Lights seem to glow brighter and brighter, things floated against my eyes, covered my eyes, they disappeared and on another occasion when I closed my eye they still remained, so I was really, really ill. The last episode when I still living at home was that I felt like some force was turning me round in a circle in the room. It was literally trying to push me downstairs but the force, I know it might sound bizarre in itself but this is what seemed to have happened to me like you’re on this roundabout and you’re just turning and you get dizzy but the thing was I feel like there’s something pulling me from inside, inside my body and pushing me towards the door to the stairs. I opened the door with my elbow, there’s a flight of probably twelve stairs, steep stairs because it’s old semi-detached house similar to this one I live in now very steep stairs. So when the bizarreness seemed to be pulling me and pushing me down the stairs, I had to literally sit on my bottom and go down the stairs on my bum otherwise I felt like I would’ve being thrown forward down the stairs. My family was down stairs and said to them, “Oh my God, what’s had happened? Something had gone on here.
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.
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.
Colin is currently unemployed, living in a flat, is single with no children. Ethnic Background' White Scottish.
Well it’s almost like a sort of, I mean it’s almost like you get that, if you get a sort of euphoric sort of it's not really connected, it’s just like a sort of, a sort of rising... it’s like, almost like an opening out of your sort of being, in a way you feel, you know, you’re in a sort of psychic realm where you’re thinking about, like you’re thinking you’re, you’re bigger than all this sort of, all the world power structures. Just think it. It’s like this whole thing about being, almost being contained, only it didn’t be contained, because your soul, your whole sort of being seems to be, you know, flying all over a place. I was just kind getting that, it’s hard to, it’s to get a real picture, because I’ve tried to write it down a few times and its, its just a really, it’s like a religious thing. A magic realism something. You’re basically thinking out your body, you know, you’re not really in your body when you’re going through this [coughs]. And that was something that the stayed with me was there for, well not the stayed, but it was that type of things. That was the first instant that it really…I mean I had a time before that, just before, [coughs] I went into hospital, went through it once. I had a similar thing but I hadn’t… it’s like you’re … it’s like a bit, or some imagination taken from reading the science fiction or science fantasy or some ridiculous thing. But it’s like that, sort of, you think you’ve got this really massively profound idea that you think you know what time itself is. And Mother Nature and this and that. It’s almost like you think you’re aware of these sort of, you know, fundamental aspects of existence. Without really being very philosophical there, how they really know, you know, they’ve had any like, you know, education in that area but it’s just something seems to flood out and there’s no real, really sort of control mechanisms about it.
So that was the first, that was what the first real florid, eruption,
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.
Tom is an artist and musician, single and has no children. Ethnic background' White English
Yes, well, yeah, sure my [sniffs] the delusions I underwent during that year when I was ill, which was sort of an experimental time, you know, just experimenting without, trying to live without medication, you know, so including, yeah, I was quite religious at that time so to an ordinary Christian say believing that believing in the resurrection and that believing also in the end of days and the last the last trumpet and the sea throwing up it’s dead and stuff, that that’s all part and parcel of being a Christian. But you could say that was a bit, that could be a bit of a mass delusion in itself but my delusion my main delusions at that time was that I was made, that the last judgement, you know, the when every when all the dead come back was happening. And I was everyday I was meeting I was sort of finding proof of that.
I was meeting usually, artists from the past like people like Goethe, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Liszt, great, Schubert, great composers, you know, or poets or artists or painters and that that kind of thing. And I was, you know, if somebody had just the slightest resemblance to say, I so I live in [place name] and just a couple of doors along, is a man looks a bit like Rachmaninoff and so, he had similar hair as well to Rachmaninoff had so for example, I’d, you know, I’d believe that that was Rachmaninoff coming back from the dead and because I was an artist I was believing they were they were trying to communicate with me and that’s why I was seeing so many of them.
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 April 2014.
Last updated April 2014.