What it means to hear voices and how to cope

If you notice that you’re hearing things that others can’t, you may be experiencing what’s known as auditory hallucinations it's more common than many think. Here's what you should know.

What does it mean to “hear voices”?

Most often, if someone says that they’re hearing voices, it means they’re hearing something that those around them don’t hear. This is different from hearing your own thoughts, in that it is most often the sound of someone else’s voice, rather than your own internal monologue. Medical professionals may also call these “auditory hallucinations”. Sometimes, it can be difficult to identify that you are experiencing auditory hallucinations, as they can seem like a very real part of your life. 

  • Hearing voices, such as people talking to you or about you

  • Hearing music

  • Hearing animal sounds

  • Hearing background noise, such as people talking around you

At the end of the day, each person experiencing auditory hallucinations will have a unique experience. If you believe you or someone you know may be hearing voices, it may be time consider exploring support options.

“One night, I thought I heard my roommates talking about me through the walls... I tried to ignore it and go to sleep, but I couldn’t. I stayed up all night listening...”

- Kelly, read about her journey

What is it like to have auditory hallucinations?

It’s different for every person that has these experiences. For some it may be a positive and helpful experience. For others it can be negative and upsetting. For some, these sounds or voices are temporary and come and go. For others, they are persistent and lasting. 

An auditory hallucination might:

  • Be feminine or masculine in tone

  • Whisper or shout

  • Be encouraging and comforting or be threatening and cruel

  • Speak your native language or a different one

  • Comment on what you’re doing

  • Remind you to do things you need to do

Causes of auditory hallucinations

If you’re hearing voices, or having other auditory hallucinations, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a mental health challenge. In fact, a 2022 study notes that 10-15% of people of all ages without a known mental health condition experience auditory hallucinations.

While it’s not yet fully understood exactly why someone may experience auditory hallucinations, there are a few different things that we know may cause these experiences.

  • Alcohol and heavy drinking

  • Drugs, especially hallucinogens like ecstasy and LSD

  • Lack of sleep

  • Extreme hunger or dehydration

  • Side effects from medicine

  • High fevers and infections

  • Traumatic life experiences

  • Intense stress or worry

  • Mental health challenges

No matter the cause, if you’re hearing voices, it’s important to get support sooner than later. Asking for help can be hard but it can make a world of difference, and there are a wide range of support options to consider.

Continue reading to learn tips for coping with voices and auditory hallucinations on a daily basis.

How to cope with voices

If you’re hearing voices, or having other auditory hallucinations, there are different things you can try to help cope. 

  1. Listen to music. Using headphones can be especially helpful.

  2. Go for a walk. In fact, any form of exercise (especially if you’re doing it outside, in nature) is good for self-care and can help you cope.

  3. Do something, anything that makes you focus on something else. This includes reading a book, drawing or making art, writing in a journal, doing a puzzle, playing an instrument, gardening, counting down from 100.

  4. Find the things and people that help foster positive thoughts and feelings about yourself and the world. Check out this video by Oxford Sparks that discusses how being around people can help you cope.

  5. Meditate, practice mindfulness. If you’re not sure how to get started, check out the Headspace app.

  6. Frame thoughts and words into positive messages as much as possible. Counteract negative messages by repeating aloud something positive about yourself. Say it 100 times if it helps.

  7. Talk with a supportive friend, parent, or trusted adult. This can be hard, and they may not understand what you’re going through. Here are a few tips for opening up to someone you trust. (Sharing this article with them may also help them better understand.)

  8. Take control. For some, engaging with or even challenging the voices can help. You might ask them to come back at a more convenient time or tell them to leave altogether. Or, if they say something negative, you might respond with, “Prove it!”

  9. Find a professional who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT can help change your relationship with voices.

At the end of the day, what's most important is remembering to have compassion for yourself throughout the process. Check out this video from King's Cultural Community to learn a few tactics for a compassionate approach.