Hearing and seeing things that aren't there

When you hear or see things that aren't there, you're experiencing an 'altered reality,' which may be a sign of psychosis. Find out more about the symptoms of psychosis, why they can occur, and whether something more serious may be going on.

This can help if: 

  • You’re worried about hearing and seeing things that others don’t 
  • You are wondering what psychosis actually means 
  • You want to help a friend who might be experiencing psychosis

What does it feel like to experience an 'altered reality'?

An “altered reality” describes an individual’s experience of their world when it is not matching up to others’ experiences of the world. This can be very frightening, because it can become hard to tell the difference between what is real and what is not. This can happen because of a condition called psychosis. Psychosis can last for a few days, up to many years.   

There are many symptoms of psychosis. The most common ones are: 

  • Hallucinations: This means you might be seeing, hearing or feeling something that is not there. You might hear voices that sound like real people (not the voice in your head) or see images that other people can’t. 
  • Delusions: This is about strongly believing something that is not real. For example, believing that aliens are watching you from space.
  • Confused thinking: Having trouble thinking and speaking because your mind won’t focus.  
  • Increased sleep: Sleeping more than what is considered normal, usually as a means of escape.

Reasons people experience altered realities

  • Drugs: Using or withdrawing from drugs, particularly cannabis, hallucinogens and amphetamines, can cause psychotic symptoms. 
  •  Medical condition: Some medical diseases such as endocrine diseases, metabolic diseases and autoimmune disorders can cause psychotic symptoms.
  • Other mental illness: Extremely severe depression or bipolar disorder can cause psychotic symptoms.
  • Genetics: Having a relative with psychotic symptoms makes you slightly more likely to have the same experience at some point. 
  • A psychotic disorder: There are some disorders which are characterised by particular psychotic symptoms.

Could this be something more serious?

Sometimes, experiencing an ‘altered reality’ might be a sign that you have a psychotic disorder. This will depend on how long the symptoms have lasted, what started them and exactly what the symptoms are. Psychotic disorders include:

  • Brief reactive psychosis: This means that the psychotic symptoms are a reaction to an extreme life event, such as the death of a loved one. This type of psychosis is typically brief.   
  • Schizophrenia: This is a psychotic disorder that describes a combination of different types of psychotic symptoms that have been present for over six months.
  • Schizoaffective disorder: This is a disorder that is characterised by a combination of psychotic symptoms, and problems with mood. This might be persistent low mood, or a combination of low mood and extremely elevated (manic) mood.  

If you think you might be experiencing psychotic symptoms, it is normal to feel scared. However, when young people receive early help for psychotic symptoms, they have a high chance of permanent recovery. The best thing to do is to seek professional help with a doctor

It can be hard to know where to find the right support you need. ReachOut NextStep is an anonymous online tool that recommends relevant support options based on what you want help with. Try ReachOut NextStep to learn about the support options available for you.

What can I do now?