What does hearing voices mean? | Advice for Young People | Jigsaw

Hearing voices

Hearing voices

Tuesday, 07 July 2020

We know that many young people hear voices or sounds that other people can’t hear. The recent My World Survey found that over one in five adolescents has had this experience.

This can feel frightening or confusing, particularly with a backdrop of movies and tv programmes that portray hearing voices as ‘crazy’. However, there are many explanations for the phenomenon of hearing voices.

A person looking out the window into the distance

What does ‘hearing voices’ mean?

Each experience of hearing voices is unique . There can be one or several voices, and it can occur frequently or infrequently (for some people, it may only happen once). The voice itself may be familiar or not (someone you know or don’t know).

For some people, the voice could be a commentator. It can be brought on by a certain experience or feelings in some cases. However, it can be helpful to make the distinction between hearing voices and our inner self-talk or inner critic.

Inner critic vs. hearing voices

The biggest difference between the inner critic and hearing voices is that one is our own thoughts and one is an auditory experience (sounds in our ears). We all have inner ‘self-talk’ when we are thinking things through in our head.

It’s possible to “talk ourselves” in or out of things, and in many cases describe an internal ‘voice’ that helps us evaluate our choices for example. On the other hand, hearing voices is an auditory experience where the voice could feel like it’s right next to us, or more in the distance.

Jigsaw Clinician
We all have inner ‘self-talk’ when we are thinking things through in our head.

Why would someone hear voices?

Although there isn’t necessarily a ‘cause’ to hearing voices, there are experiences that can inspire them to come on, or amplify them in general. These include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Increased stress or anxiety
  • Physical illness (even something such as an increased temperature)
  • Use of drugs or alcohol
  • If someone has experienced a bereavement (in some cases they may hear the voice of the deceased)
  • If someone has gone through a trauma (such as abuse for example).

Understanding the experience

If you are hearing voices, it’s worth noting what the voices are saying. Are they critical, complementary, positive or negative? It could be that the voices feel protective or supportive.

You might like to try interacting with the voices rather than ignoring them or getting angry with them. Try to understand what they’re saying and note when you are hearing them (does it happen at a certain time or event?).

Jigsaw Clinician
Although there isn’t necessarily a ‘cause’ to hearing voices, there are experiences that can inspire them to come on, or amplify them in general.

Address any stressors

Stress can often aggravate the experience of hearing voices and amplify it. Hearing voices can be isolating and distressing at times. You can try breathing and relaxation exercises when you hear the voices. Learn more about strategies to cope with stress here.

When does hearing voices become a problem?

Hearing voices is often negatively portrayed in movies and TV, making people who hear voices appear “crazy” or out of control. In reality, hearing voices is not uncommon, many famous people have acknowledged hearing voices. For some people, voices can be a meaningful part of their lives and it’s not a matter of “getting rid” of them.

In many cases, the voices themselves aren’t necessarily a problem, but we do need to learn how to deal with them. There are many ways to cope with voices and learn how to manage them.

If you feel scared by voices you hear, they are extremely critical or negative, or you feel that you are being compelled to do things that you don’t want to do, you should talk to someone you trust and access support. Find out more about services that can help for under 18’s and over 18’s.


How can you support someone who hears voices?

  • Ask them what happened and validate their experience
  • Don’t shame the person, offer them comfort
  • Don’t make any assumptions as to what the voices are saying or jump to any conclusions about the voices themselves
  • Offer support and ask how you can be of help.
Close up of a a person comforting another, specifically a hand on their shoulder

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