How to Respond to Hearing Distressing Voices


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Psychiatric drugs did not make my voices ‘go away’ although there were times when I was so drugged I didn’t care about anything, including what the voices had to say.”

Pat Deegan, Ph.D.

Psychologist and researcher Pat Deegan began hearing voices in her childhood. She was not hospitalized until the voices began to distress her in her adolescent years. A physician promptly gave her a poor prognosis and urged her to consider living in a halfway house. Deegan lived with the diagnosis of schizophrenia for seventeen years and was hospitalized 9 times. During that time she vowed to change the mental health system.

As an activist and as the founder of the National Empowerment Center she now works to change attitudes and prognoses about schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations. One of her main goals is to de-stigmatize “voice hearing.” In Deegan’s opinion, hearing voices does not necessarily imply sickness.

Rather than quickly popping a pill, she says, a voice hearer should have the opportunity to explore the experience to better cope with it. She acknowledges the voices can be kind, but they can also cause distress and disrupt the ability to work, reach goals, or build good relationships. In her articles, “Hearing voices that are distressing: Self-help resources and strategies,”¹ and “Hearing voices that are distressing: Self-help resources and strategies (Part two),”²  Deegan offers strategies that help people either stop the voices or cope with them.

  • Don’t isolate yourself and hide what you’re going through.
  • Put a rubber band around your wrist and snap it each time a distressing voice starts speaking.
  • Use “I” statements, repeating aloud what the voices are telling you.  If the voice says “you are worthless,” say “I am feeling worthless right now.” This transfers what you are hearing into your ownership, which can quiet down the ‘need’ for the voices to speak.
  • Keep a record of when the voices occur to see if there is a pattern. Avoid the situations that instigate the voices.
  • Listen to music you like, not to drown out the voices, but to focus on something enjoyable and engage your mind.
  • Be aware of physical factors that affect you such as use of alcohol, caffeine, and cold medicines.
  • Reject the voices outright, saying “I don’t care what you think.”
  • Ignore the voices, do not engage with them, and keep going about your ordinary activities.
  • Tape record affirming statements made by friends or family and play it when the voices begin.
  • The presence of “white noise,” such as revolving doors, clothes dryers, or fans, can trigger voices in some people. Check to see if this affects you.

“We are learning that we do not have to be victims of our distressing voices,” says Deegan, who was hospitalized while earning her doctorate.  She believes in recovery from mental illness and in the many tools needed, especially by voice hearers.

“Swallowing pills does not make a recovery,” she says. “Recovery is about changing our lives, not about changing our biochemistry.”³

For more ideas on ways to cope with hearing voices, see Hearing Voices: Talk Therapy, Healthier Lifestyle, or What Else is There? Part 2 .




³ Recovery from Mental Disorders, lecture by Pat Deegan on youtube