In recent weeks Emmerdale’s Belle Dingle has seen a return of the distressing voices that we first saw her experiencing back in 2014. But what causes someone to hear voices in the first place? In this blog I explain what is meant by voice hearing and what you can do if it affects you or someone you know.
Our thoughts aren’t always in our control
Everyone has an internal voice. Put simply, these are all the thoughts that go through your head every single day! Sometimes we’re in control of that thought process and other times thoughts can pop into our heads without us meaning them to. As an example, try for the next minute to NOT think of a pink elephant. Managed it? Most people don’t! Our minds have a way of going off on tangents and we have less control over our thoughts than we think.
When people talk about ‘hearing voices’, what they mean is that their thoughts are going into overdrive. For some people, these thoughts can seem so out of character for them, that it feels like hearing the voice of someone else. Sometimes people even report the voice seeming to come from outside their head, or from an object such as a TV, adding to their confusion and often fear.
Hearing voices is a very personal experience and no two people’s voices are the same. Some may hear one very clear voice with a name, a gender and seemingly its own personality. Other people hear a number of voices muttering together, like a radio on in the background. For some, voices are comforting and encouraging, for others they can be critical, hostile and distressing.
Voice hearing is more common than you think
Many people are surprised to hear that hearing voices on its own isn’t necessarily a sign of a serious mental health problem. It is thought that up to 1 in 10 people regularly hear voices. This rises dramatically if you include people who have had one off experiences – like thinking you heard someone shout your name in a crowded room.
It can sometimes be a sign of breakdown
If voices start to take up more and more of your day and take on a hostile edge, it can be a very distressing and lonely experience. Because the voices can feel so different to the “you” you know, you may start to believe that they really are coming from another person. This is why people can develop what are sometimes called “paranoid” beliefs; attempts to explain how and why these relentless voices are targeting them. This often goes hand in hand with high anxiety and worry about threats from other people. Hostile voices can sometimes occur alongside other mental health problems, such as depression and suicidal thoughts. If this is the case, it is vital you seek support as soon as you can (see below).
It may stem from a number of factors
There was a time when experts widely believed hearing voices was due to a disorder of the brain that could be treated with medication. However, more recent research suggests the picture is far more complicated than this. It is likely an interaction of nature (genetics, temperament) and nurture (childhood experiences, social relationships and later stressful life events). Whilst some people who continue to hear distressing voices may receive a diagnosis of Psychosis or Schizophrenia, voices actually span a number of other mental health diagnoses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression. It is more helpful to think of problematic voice hearing as one possible reaction to an overwhelmingly stressful situation. Many people who experience distressing voices trace the start of their voice hearing back to a particularly traumatic experience. For some, cruelly, the voice can take on the same voice as a past abuser or bully.
Always seek support
If you or someone you know is struggling with distressing voices, the first step is to visit your GP who will likely refer you on to a mental health specialist. They can help you determine what may have triggered your voices and whether it is part of a mental health crisis. Support for voice hearing will vary depending on what has triggered it for you, and whether other factors are present such as suicidal thoughts, or paranoid beliefs. It may include medication, talking therapy and/or support with managing other life stresses. The good news is that more and more people are starting to open up about their experience of hearing voices and research is being carried out into new and innovative ways of supporting people. Visit https://www.hearing-voices.org for further information and to read real life accounts from people who hear voices.