Trauma and Hearing Voices

Auditory hallucinations are a more widespread phenomenon than you might think. They're not only specific to schizophrenia. For example, people who've experienced a traumatic event may hear voices.
Trauma and Hearing Voices
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 08 May, 2023

When voices appear in an individual’s mind they’re almost never friendly. On the contrary, they tend to be intrusive, threatening, critical, and conspiratorial. Sometimes they may even claim to be a deceased relative. There’s also often more than one and they might all speak at the same time. In fact, few experiences are more disturbing than auditory hallucinations.

We usually associate the phenomenon of hearing voices with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and certain personality disorders. However, these experiences are often more frequent than you may think. Furthermore, they can appear in those who aren’t suffering from any psychological disorder.

People who are more likely to hear voices are those who’ve experienced trauma due to sexual abuse. Added to the trauma of the event itself, they find themselves on the receiving end of terrifying and dangerous messages. Indeed, the messages and statements issued by these internal presences are never innocuous. Moreover, they can lead the sufferer to self-harm and isolation.

Post-traumatic stress disorder causes flashbacks, anxiety, sleep problems etc. But, patients often don’t expect to suffer alterations of reality or to hear voices that don’t exist in real life.

Man with representing Traumatized People Hearing Voices
Although hearing voices is associated with psychotic disorders, people suffering from trauma also experience them.

Trauma and hearing voices

Trauma spectrum disorders are conditions that we don’t yet fully understand. That said, we do know that, if these adverse experiences are experienced in childhood, they have a greater psychological impact on the individual. So much so that they can alter the development of various neurological regions.

Suffering abuse, mistreatment, aggression, losing a loved one, living in threatening contexts, suffering bullying, experiencing a natural disaster… There are multiple situations that can trigger the psychological fracture of a trauma. The symptoms triggered by trauma include anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, emotional ups and downs, feelings of guilt and shame, etc.

While hallucinations and alterations of reality don’t always appear in trauma sufferers, they do often have a tendency to hear voices. This fact has been endorsed by scientific research.

The mere perception of listening to these voices can further increase the individual’s tension and suffering. This further increases the occurrence of auditory hallucinations.

Who’s most at risk of hearing voices?

The University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, conducted research to analyze the relationship between childhood trauma and auditory hallucinations. They highlighted the need to develop more personalized treatments in light of this significant relationship.

The study found that, as a rule, women who were sexually abused as children were more likely to hear voices at some point. It’s not a cause-effect relationship and there’s only a higher risk. Yet, it’s a clinical picture we must understand if we want to offer sufferers the best therapeutic approach.

The content or narratives of these voices always have a negative bias that can incite self-harm or suicidal behavior. In fact, they generate immense anguish in the sufferer. Furthermore, they incite them to mistrust their environment and promote dysfunctional behaviors. Understandably, this further intensifies their emotional pain.

The need to talk about the voices

Sometimes, trauma sufferers hear voices that lead to psychotic states. Today, post-traumatic stress and psychosis are recognized as different conditions. Fortunately, we now have scientific literature available on the subject of the relationship between them.

For example, the Medical University of South Carolina conducted a study that claimed trauma can also appear with secondary psychotic characteristics. These cases exhibit unique neurobiological and genetic features. Although they’re clinical cases that, not long ago, would’ve been considered quite rare, today they’re being detailed with increasing frequency.

Undisputably, suffering a trauma can, at any given moment, cause an auditory hallucination to appear. Unfortunately, this phenomenon still carries a great social stigma. For this reason, it’s essential to talk about the voices to promote better attention and awareness of this symptom.

Moreover, it’s important to normalize this kind of reality that any one of us could experience at any point in our lives.

It’s estimated that more than ten percent of the population will hear voices (auditory hallucinations) associated with traumatic experiences.

psychologist treating people with trauma who hear voices
When addressing the appearance of voices in trauma, psychological therapy is key.

Risperidone and quetiapine are a couple of the antipsychotic drugs used to treat hallucinations. However, for trauma sufferers who hear voices, antipsychotics aren’t recommended. That’s because there’s currently no scientific evidence that the use of this type of second-generation psychoactive drug is useful in treating auditory hallucinations.

Instead, trauma sufferers who hear voices must be offered therapy based on scientific evidence. There are various extremely useful therapies for the treatment of psychological trauma. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). Both have proven efficacy in these types of cases.

Most importantly, individuals must seek specialized help as early as possible. Indeed, a traumatized child should never be allowed to reach adulthood living with the burden of an experience they’ve been unable to process. Nor should adults be similarly neglected. However, unfortunately, they sometimes choose to put aside their past wounds. In these cases, they eventually find themselves breaking down. That’s when the voices start.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the experience of hearing voices is more common than we probably think. In fact, we’re all susceptible to experiencing their uncomfortable and threatening presence at certain points in our lives. But, they can be silenced and there are professionals available to help. Without a doubt, it’s an issue that we need to talk about.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Clifford G, Dalgleish T, Hitchcock C. Prevalence of auditory pseudohallucinations in adult survivors of physical and sexual trauma with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Behav Res Ther. 2018 Dec;111:113-118. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2018.10.015. Epub 2018 Oct 30. PMID: 30399504; PMCID: PMC6259581.
  • Shinn AK, Wolff JD, Hwang M, Lebois LAM, Robinson MA, Winternitz SR, Öngür D, Ressler KJ, Kaufman ML. Assessing Voice Hearing in Trauma Spectrum Disorders: A Comparison of Two Measures and a Review of the Literature. Front Psychiatry. 2020 Feb 24;10:1011. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.01011. PMID: 32153431; PMCID: PMC7050446.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.