Spiritual and religious frameworks are important to the way in which many voice-hearers interpret their experiences. While there may be similarities and differences between spiritual voices and voices that occur within the context of mental health problems, attempts to distinguish between them face cultural, political and scientific challenges. Even so, growing evidence suggests that spirituality and religion may provide useful coping strategies for anyone experiencing distressing voices.
Recent research by Simon McCarthy-Jones and colleagues has found four ways in which spirituality may help those who hear voices and are distressed by their experiences:
1. Spirituality may offer an explanation for the experience which adds to or replaces medical explanations. Having a way of making sense of voices that fits with your worldview and identity can help the voices feel more comforting, less intrusive and aid coping.
2. Spirituality may lead to, or teach, new coping strategies – for example, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, prayer, tai-chi and other practices. Some of these are designed to elicit or normalise voice-hearing; others help to a sense of create distance from distressing voices, enabling people to ‘let go’ and stop unhelpful patterns of interaction with them. Either way, these practices can increase someone’s sense of power and control over their experiences.
3. Spirituality may provide or enhance social support – for example, by providing access to spiritual advisors, ministers, collective church activities, meetings and online forums. Experiencing voices alongside others in a like-minded collective may reduce stigma and distress.
4. Spirituality may provide conceptions of, and pathways for, forgiveness and the alleviation of guilt and shame. Common religious concepts like sin, salvation, and justice can induce catharsis.
According to Buddhist cosmology, derived from premodern Indian (South Asian) cosmology, the realms of existences (gati) include gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, ghosts (pretas, ‘hungry ghosts’) and hell-beings. Within the invisible realms several classes of gods, demi-gods, ghosts and demons are recognised and regularly enumerated as mythical audience for the teachings of the Buddha(s).In most pre-modern(ist) Buddhist contexts, hearing voices is perceived as hearing invisible beings and/or being possessed by them. Those experiencing voices or possession are usually seen as having weakened defences—due to karma or the lack of protective measures such as amulets— against such intrusions or, in the case of divine (oracle or healing) possessions, are specifically gifted and trained.
Often, these four elements combine in unique ways. Work by anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann suggests that for some evangelical Christians, for example, hearing the voice of God outside of their own head can be reassuring and linked to a combination of desire, expectation, spiritual teaching, practice and a cultural worldview that believes such experiences are even possible.
With ready explanations, expectations of comfort, and strategies for eliciting, expelling or otherwise controlling voices, spiritual and religious frameworks might offer some people a useful set of resources to help them live well with the voices they hear.
When spirituality doesn’t help
The experience is not always positive though. While few studies have been conducted on this, some researchers suggest that – by claiming to explain voice-hearing and other unusual experiences – religion and spiritual interpretations of voices may also cause difficulties. For example:
- Some spiritual or religious communities may actively block voice-hearers’ access to mental health services, believing that voices are a result of sin, moral weakness or lack of
faith,and that the treatment should be a spiritual one. In extreme cases, these so-called treatments can be abusive and dangerous.
- Spirituality can increase distress, encouraging people to interpret their voices in ways that are frightening or increase their influence – for example, by seeing them as powerful demonic entities.
- Stigma, including self-stigma, depends on the context. Some religious traditions may cause voice-hearers to feel isolated and ostracised, especially if voices are interpreted as a result of moral failing.
Find out more
Simon McCarthy-Jones, Amanda Waegeli and John Watkins (2013). Spirituality and hearing voices: considering the relation. Psychosis