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A hallucination involves perceiving sensory stimuli that aren't really present. For example, someone might hear voices that aren’t there, or see patterns that others don’t see.

Hallucinations are a hallmark of schizophrenia spectrum disorders, but they can arise from many different causes, such as medications, illnesses, alcohol or substance use, and sleep deprivation.

Experiencing a hallucination can be scary, confusing, and overwhelming, both for those suffering from the hallucination and for their loved ones. But seeking help and beginning treatment can help alleviate that distress.

Types and Symptoms
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Hallucinations are tremendously variable. They can encompass any of the five senses. They can instill deep fear or involve neutral or even positive emotions.

Although experiencing a different reality than other people can be very frightening, doctors and mental health professionals can help identify the root cause and develop a treatment plan.

What are the different types of hallucinations?

Hallucinations can occur through any one of the five senses. Auditory hallucinations refer to hearing voices that aren’t there, visual hallucinations refer to sights such as people, objects, or patterns that aren’t there, olfactory hallucinations refer to smelling odors that aren’t there, tactile hallucinations refers to feeling touched by people or animals that aren’t there, and gustatory hallucinations refer to tasting something that isn’t there.

What are the most common hallucinations?

Auditory hallucinations are most common, including for those with schizophrenia. People may hear sounds and voices, which may speak to the person (second-person "you" voices) or about the person (third-person "he” voices).

Voices can be highly distressing, especially if they involve threats or abuse, or if they are loud and incessant. On the other hand, some voices—such as the voices of old acquaintances, dead ancestors, or "guardian angels"—can be a source of comfort and reassurance.

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Causes and Risk Factors
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Hallucinations can stem from a wide array of underlying conditions, and identifying the root cause is important for developing an effective approach to treatment.

Causes of hallucinations include:

  • Schizophrenia spectrum disorders
  • Alcohol and drug use or withdrawal
  • Sleep disorders and lack of sleep
  • Medications
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Dementia
  • Migraines
  • Epilepsy and seizures
How do LSD and psilocybin affect the brain?

Scientists still don’t understand how hallucinations emerge in psychotic episodes or after taking drugs. With some substances, particularly LSD and psilocybin, research suggests that inhibiting the neurotransmitter serotonin may yield changes that give rise to synesthesia and other atypical sensory experiences.

Are hallucinations from psychedelics different than hallucinations in mental health conditions?

Yes, scientists are beginning to uncover a few differences between the two. Schizophrenia spectrum disorders most involve auditory hallucinations, while psychedelic-induced psychosis typically involves visual distortions like seeing geometric patterns, research shows.

The primary brain regions and neurotransmitters may also be distinct: Hallucinations in schizophrenia are linked to dopamine signaling and over-activation of associative networks related to the content of the hallucination, while psychedelic hallucinations over-engage sensory areas and are linked to serotonin.

Support and Treatment
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Treatment for hallucinations aims to target the underlying cause. If the hallucinations are due to schizophrenia or another mental health condition, treatment is typically a combination of talk therapy and antipsychotic medication, such as Risperidone, Olanzapine, or Chlorpromazine. Other causes will yield different treatments; hallucinations due to Parkinson’s disease may require an adjustment to one's medication while hallucinations due to sleep problems may involve implementing healthy sleep habits.

How can I help a loved one who is hallucinating?

If a loved one is hallucinating, stay with them to help keep them safe. Assist them in seeking mental health care, and accompany them to see the doctor. 

People often find themselves challenging a loved one's hallucinations, partly out of a desire to relieve their suffering, and partly out of understandable feelings of fear and helplessness. Unfortunately, this can alienate the sufferer when they most need care.

A more constructive approach is to recognize that your loved one’s psychotic symptoms are meaningful to them, while making it clear that you do not personally share in them.

Can I manage my hallucinations on my own?

The most important aspect of treating hallucinations is receiving regular mental health care from a professional. But the following steps may help individuals manage and reduce hallucinations themselves:

• Keep a diary of the hallucinations to identify and avoid the situations in which they arise.

• Choose a trusted person with whom to discuss the voices.

• Focus your attention on a distracting activity such as reading, singing, listening to music, gardening, or exercising.

• Challenge the voices and insist that they go away.

• Manage your levels of stress and anxiety.

• Ensure that you are getting enough sleep.

• Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs.

• Take medication as prescribed. If necessary, ask for a review of medication.

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