Voices can be critical or they can be complementary and many people may be able to find ways to live with them. It's difficult to explain what it is like to hear voices, particularly if you've never heard voices yourself. However, the experience of hearing voices is not as alien as it is generally thought to be.
What's is like to hear voices?
First, it can be the same as hearing a voice in the normal way, through your ears; the difference is that the voice has no physical source. You may think you have never experienced this, but are you sure? You may have had the experience of hearing someone call your name only to find that there is no one there.
Indeed, research shows that, especially for recently bereaved people, it is not uncommon to hear the voice of someone who isn’t actually there speaking to you, or who may even be dead.
It's also common for people to hear voices as if they are thoughts entering their mind from somewhere outside themselves. This is not the same as a suddenly inspired idea, which people usually recognise as coming from themselves. These thoughts are not their own and would seem to come from outside their own consciousness, like telepathy.
A good example of this is the experience of recalling a rhyme or tune, which you find yourself repeating unconsciously under your breath and which keeps going through your head again and again. You can even find yourself humming it. You never took a decision to start thinking of it and it’s difficult to stop thinking about it.
The difference between the tune in your head and a 'voice thought' that appears as words in your mind is that the voice may go on to speak coherently to you and even engage you in conversation. You yourself are not responsible for it and you have no idea what this voice is going to say next.
There are many different ways to hear voices. Voices can be experienced in the head, from outside the head or even in the body. It may be one voice or many voices. The voice may talk to you or about you.
There are other ways to hear voices. Some people experience non-verbal thoughts, images and visions, tastes, smells and touch – all with no physical cause and all sensations that they didn’t call into being themselves.
Voices can be like dreams. We all dream and experience words, images and even sensations. When we are bored we can drift off and have a day dream. When we dream all sorts of strange things can happen to us, but we still believe they’re really happening to us. Hearing voices can be like that – a waking dream that is experienced as real.
For voice hearers, the voices might be present all day and prevent them from doing things in their daily lives. Voices may threaten to punish the voice hearer if they don’t do what the voice wants them to do. people who hear voices may not feel able to talk about them and may become isolated and withdrawn as a result.
Hallucination or human experience?
Hearing voices can be a very disturbing experience, both for the person who hears voices and family and friends. Until recently voices were regarded as a symptom of a mental illness and not talked about because of fear of stigma.
Hearing voices are still considered by psychiatry as an auditory hallucination and as a symptom of conditions such as schizophrenic disorders, manic depression and psychosis. The orthodox treatment is with major tranquillisers. These do not get rid of the voices.
In the past mental health professionals were taught not to let voice hearers talk about their voices as this was thought to be colluding with the person’s delusions and not helpful. Most often professionals sought to distract the voice hearer from their voices.
Research has shown that many people hear voices, and some cope well with their voices, without psychiatric intervention. It has also been found that many people who hear voices regard them as a positive part of their lives.
Throughout history and even today there are people who hear voices who find their voices inspirational and comforting. Many researchers, practitioners and voice hearers believe it is mistaken to regard voice hearing as part of a psychopathic disease syndrome. Rather, they consider it to be more akin to a variation in human experience - a special faculty or difference that definitely does not need a cure.
Finding meaning in voices
Sound research with many voice hearers, both within and outside of mental health services, has found that how voice hearers cope with their voices (or don’t) depends not on the content of the voice experience (which can be either abusive and devaluing or guiding and inspiring – or both) but on the nature of the relationship with the voices. If you believe the voices to be in control you can’t cope; if you believe you are stronger than the voices are, you can.
This means it is no longer a sustainable position to think of voices as part of a disease syndrome, such as schizophrenia. Instead hearing voices can be regarded as a meaningful, real (although sometimes painful, fearful and overwhelming) experience that speak to the person in a metaphorical way about their life, emotions and environment. For instance, people experiencing distress as a consequence of abusive or commanding voices can often recognise their voices as those of their actual abusers and the voices have the effect of attacking their sense of self esteem and worth.
Having discovered these kinds of relationships, psychiatrists and psychologists in the UK and the Netherlands are developing techniques to help voice hearers focus on their experience and get to know their voices better. The new approach helps the voice hearer to make space for the voices, to listen but not to necessarily obey, to engage, but in their own time and space - essentially to learn how to control them within their own explanatory framework. This acceptance of the voices is crucial to growth and resolution. Voice hearers who have learnt these techniques can now say, "I hear voices, they are part of me and I am glad they are".
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