Disorders

How Anxiety Can Create Hallucinations

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

How Anxiety Can Create Hallucinations

Intense anxiety can cause not only fear, but symptoms that create further fear. In many ways, intense anxiety can cause the feeling of going crazy - as though you are losing touch with reality. Sometimes this is nothing more than a feeling or thought. Other times this is caused by additional anxiety symptoms that resemble those of true psychosis.

One such symptom is hallucinations. While it's rare for someone with anxiety to truly hallucinate, it's not rare for those with intense anxiety to have various types of mild hallucinations that can cause additional fear over your mental stability.

Hallucination Causes and Anxiety

Anxiety can play tricks on the mind, and anxiety itself can cause you to fear or think the worst about issues that are otherwise fairly normal. Severe hallucinations, especially visual hallucinations, are extremely rare for those with anxiety, but that doesn't mean that there aren't similar and related hallucinations that are attributed to anxiety symptoms.

Make sure you've ruled out other issues. Drug abuse can cause hallucinations, for example.

While it's always a good idea to visit a doctor or psychologist if the hallucinations are strong, the reality is that those who are truly hallucinating from some type of mental health problem rarely have enough of a grasp on reality to recognize it's a hallucination. Those who are genuinely hearing voices or seeing things that aren't there usually suffer from such intense reality loss that they are unaware what they're seeing isn't really there.

Types of Hallucinations

Hallucinations are generally broken down into subcategories based on the sense that is experiencing the unseen stimulus. The most common hallucinations are:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Olfactory

In other words, seeing, hearing and smelling. Visual hallucinations are less common in those with anxiety. However, anxiety makes someone more likely to think that some visual problem is a hallucination. For example, the person may see a shadow out of the corner of their eye - something very normal that happens to those with or without anxiety - but because their anxiety causes them to assume the worst, they think the shadow means they're hallucinating.

It's a similar problem with auditory hallucinations. There are often noises that our brains decipher incorrectly, like when you hear a noise and think that it is someone calling your name. These are completely normal responses, but the anxious mind has a tendency to believe that you are hallucinating, rather than simply mishearing.

But that's not to say that hallucinations don't occur with anxiety. They do, and they can. During intense anxiety, your brain is highly active, and that high activity can lead to a lot of unusual issues. For example:

  • Daydream Sounds Some people find that something they're thinking about or daydreaming about actually becomes an auditory sound. They may be zoning out to their own thoughts, and then somehow hear someone within their thoughts yell something to them that they are sure they heard out loud.
  • Light Changes The activation of the fight or flight system during an anxiety attack can also open up the pupils. This type of activation can cause your eyes to play tricks on you, which in turn may seem like a type of hallucination.
  • Distraction Anxiety can also make you so distracted that you are essentially unable to pay attention to the world around you. That distraction can overload your senses, so that normal information isn't able to be processed, and cause you to genuinely see, hear or feel things that are otherwise not there.
  • Floating/Disconnection During panic attacks, some people find that their brain "shuts down" in many ways. It starts to see the world as unusual, and loses its grip on reality temporarily. This may cause you to believe that you are hearing noises or seeing things that don't make sense until you get back to reality.

It's also important to note that any type of extreme stress can activate areas of your brain that may lead to some types of hallucinations. It's not clear exactly how this occurs or why, but it's something that many people claim to have experienced.

How to Reduce the Feeling of Hallucinating

The most important thing that you can do is remind yourself that if you really were hallucinating because you are "going crazy," it would be unlikely that you would stop the hallucinations when your anxiety dies down. Most people who hallucinate with anxiety either have the briefest of hallucinations (ie, hearing a single noise that isn't there) or have their hallucinations occur when they're extremely anxious only to go away when the anxiety dies down. That indicates it's anxiety, and not the loss of touch with reality.

Seeing a therapist can also be helpful. A cognitive-behavioral therapist can help diagnose your anxiety disorder and reduce any of the fears you have about what your hallucinations "mean." Therapy isn't for everyone, but those that worry about hallucinations may benefit more than others.

Finally, make sure that you start committing to a treatment that will control your anxiety. If you suffer from anxiety at all - even if you have convinced yourself that anxiety is not the cause of your hallucinations - then curing that anxiety is important. If it does cause your hallucinations, those hallucinations will decrease fairly quickly once your anxiety goes away.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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