Hearing voices is only as bad as what they tell you, a new study suggests. Researchers have shown that auditory hallucinations only have a negative impact if they clash with the person’s values and objectives.

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Auditory hallucinations are often only worrying if they are at odds with the individual’s goals and values, researchers suggest.

A new study led by Drs. Filippo Varese, Warren Mansell, and Sara Tai – all of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom – looks at how auditory hallucinations, or hearing voices, can impact the lives of affected individuals.

Auditory hallucinations are often related to mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, but that is not always the case. People with no mental health complaints can sometimes also hear voices.

Dr. Varese and his colleagues point out that the voices only have a negative impact if they are in conflict with the individual’s personal values and outlook. If the voices are harnessed to provide validation of goals and beliefs, then they can have a positive effect on the hearer’s life.

The study’s findings were published in the latest issue of Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice.

Forty people participated in the new study, 22 of whom were on mental health support, with the remaining 18 of whom not receiving any assistance related to their auditory hallucinations.

The participants were required to fill in a set of surveys providing details about their life goals, what the voices they heard were likely to “tell” them, and how they reacted to what they heard.

They were also asked to indicate the degree to which the voices impacted the pursuit of their goals, and whether positively or negatively.

It was found that the participants’ reactions to the voices were an important factor in whether the voices interfered with or allowed them to pursue their life goals.

If the voices were in accordance with the hearer’s belief system and personal goals, and the hearer reacted positively to them, then a positive outcome was more likely.

“Most voice-hearers with mental health difficulties in our study experienced their voices as a hindrance to achieving their goals, and viewed their voices as distressing and problematic. But other voice-hearers find that voices facilitate their valued goals, and are therefore a pleasant and constructive part of their lives,” says Dr. Varese.

The results remained consistent even after relevant factors were accounted for, such as how hostile the voices were and how often they were heard.

This study is based on previous research undertaken with the same participants. In that research, the findings suggested that patients who were striving to ignore the voices, or who reacted negatively to them, had a lower quality of life.

The researchers advised that cognitive behavioral therapy targeting the patients’ negative reactions would relieve the distress they experienced as a result.

At the core, it is the impact that the voices have on the hearers’ personal goals that might dictate whether or not the individuals feel distress.

“In research with the same participants we previously published, what the voices said often seemed to relate to the hearer’s goals, wishes, and strivings,” Dr. Varese declares.

That, according to the researchers, should give us a clue as to how best to tackle auditorial hallucinations: by harnessing them to improve our sense of purpose and motivation.

[…] we should seek to help clients explore how their voices relate to goals that are important to them and empower them to progress towards those goals. That would be a more meaningful and acceptable way of supporting them.”

Dr. Filippo Varese