Understanding Voices

An online leaflet produced by Dr David Kingdon

Some people hear voices and are quite happy with the experience – if you are one of those, the following will not be particularly relevant to you.
However if you do want further information, click on one of the topics below:

Understanding voices

Hearing voices when nobody is around or at least when nobody seems to be saying the words you hear is quite a common thing to happen.

Sometimes the things said seem to come from neighbours, TV, radio or people you pass in the street. Other times they can just seem to come out of the air.

They seem to seem very real; they can be very loud. They may shout at you or sometimes just whisper. They can say all sorts of things. Sometimes the things said are not particularly upsetting but for most people they are worrying, threatening or abusive.

They may seem to be talking about you, even telling you what you are doing or thinking. This can be very puzzling, as it is difficult to understand how they can know such personal things.

They can be particularly distressing when they are rude or abusive towards you. Sometimes they can swear or tell you to do awful things.

They can sound very convincing as if they have the power to make you do things, even when you don’t want to do them.

It can be very difficult to work out where they are coming from. So it may be worth checking whether other people can hear the voices. If they can, they may be able to help you do something about them. Sometimes they can work out what or who is saying these things to you.

If they can’t hear them, you need to work out why that might be the case. It may be that they aren’t with you when the voices happen; trying to tape-record them might be worth trying.

Maybe the voices seem to be directed at you alone, only you can hear them. It’s worth trying to work out why that might be and talk about it with anyone, like a nurse, psychologist, spiritual adviser or doctor, who might be able to help. Sometimes it is caused by things happening to you see the list of ‘where voices come from’.

Voices may seem to be coming from behind you, through the walls even through loudspeakers. Although it can be very difficult to believe at times, voices that nobody else can hear are sometimes misinterpretations of other sounds or more usually thoughts sounding aloud. That doesn’t mean that the voices sound like your own voice, they may be memories of someone else’s voice or voices you don’t recognise. It may be a man’s voice or a woman’s voice. Just like in dreams you can hear people speaking, so voices can be thoughts aloud. Memories of other people speaking or of a tune in your head are examples of sounds you can sometimes quite vividly recall.

It is important to understand that voices cannot make you do anything. Thinking that, might make them feel worse initially but if they are from your mind, it is up to you whether you act on what they say – in other words what you are thinking – but do get support if they seem overwhelming.

There are a variety of ways in which you can lessen the effect of voices or learn to cope with them better.

Where do voices come from?

Voices can occur in lots of different situations:

  • when going off to sleep
  • when stopped from going to sleep
  • using drugs like speed and cocaine
  • when you have a very high temperature and with other physical illnesses
  • severe states of deprivation, e.g. in a desert without water
  • with illnesses like severe depression or schizophrenia
  • when seriously deprived of stimulation, e.g. under conditions of sensory deprivation or in hostage situations
  • very stressful events like violent attacks or intimidation can sometimes imprint themselves on someone’s mind as voices

Studies in the USA have shown that 4-5% of the population hears voices at any one time.

Supernatural or religious voices

The voice can seem like it comes from God or Satan, some supernatural source or even aliens of some sort. If it does you might want to talk over with someone like a therapist, psychologist, doctor, why you think that that is where it comes from. Has it said that to you itself? Well, is that reason to believe it? Would God say such unpleasant things? Satan (if you believe he exists) might but are you maybe jumping to conclusions that because the things said are so evil that it must be from an evil source – like the devil. Such evil voices can occur as a result of being depressed or the effects of drugs like speed & cocaine. If you do have religious belief, you may find help through discussion with your spiritual adviser

What can you do about voices?

The following are methods which have been useful at some time or other to people distressed by voices. Some may not be useful to youbut others may..

Coping with voices:

  • switch on the radio

  • listen to music

  • have a warm bath

  • talk to a friend

  • go for a walk

  • read a newspaper

  • make a cup of tea

  • try some vigorous exercise

  • just relax – use whatever method of unwinding that works for you

  • keep a diary so that you can work out when the voices come on and what starts them off: then you might be able to work out ways of dealing with them

  • maybe talk with or better say in your mind to them, that they can’t hurt you although they maybe distressing you

  • some people have found it helpful to allocate a certain time in the day to listen to the voices and then get on with their life at other times.
  • if they tell you to do something, explain that you don’t deserve to be told such things and you want to take control of your own life

  • perhaps talk with a doctor about how medication might help with the voices

  • talk with a nurse, doctor or psychologist about ways of developing coping methods