Everyone has powerful experiences from time to time, and there are many very ordinary reasons why people have experiences that are considered ‘unusual’. Common and powerful experiences include déjà vu, hearing voices, delirium, the effects of grief or sleep deprivation, synaesthesia, and trauma memories.
People’s reactions to these occurrences can vary greatly; even the same experience can be interpreted in very different ways depending on its context. For example, the intense consciousness-altering effects of hallucinogens are welcomed by those who take them recreationally, but would very frightening to those who didn’t understand why they were having these experiences. Among those who hear voices or have strong traumatic memories it is often the case that the experiences are appraised in a negative light.
- Hearing voices. Not everyone who hears voices is distressed by the experience. Some variation in how people react is driven by the content of the voices – it is easier to react warmly to voices that are positive and affirming rather than critical or abusive. Cognitive approaches to psychosis propose that a person’s reaction to hearing voices is mostly driven by their appraisals of the experience: viewing them as signs of madness or danger will provoke an anxious threat response.
- Trauma memories. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – such as having flashbacks that feel ‘as real as real’ – can be very frightening, especially if we think that we are alone in experiencing them, or don’t understand why they are happening. People with PTSD who view their flashbacks as a sign that they are losing their mind will find them more frightening than people who understand them as a powerful but normal consequence of having experienced trauma.
Understanding their experiences in the context of other powerful – but ‘common’, ‘normal’ and ‘everyday’ – experiences can help clients to appraise what is happening to them less negatively. The Everyday ‘Unusual’ Experiences information handout explores eight common experiences (or causes for experiences) that can be considered unusual, describing the nature and prevalence of each experience. It is designed to help clients normalize and make sense of their experiences, while the language has been kept simple enough to use with a wide range of clients.
This is a Psychology Tools information handout. Suggested uses include:
- Client handout – use as a psychoeducation resource.
- Discussion point – use to provoke a discussion and explore client beliefs.
- Therapist learning tool – improve your familiarity with a psychological construct.
- Teaching resource – use as a learning tool during training.
- Asher, J. E., & Carmichael, D. A. (2013). The genetics and inheritance of synesthesia. The Oxford handbook of synesthesia, 23-45.
- Beavan, V., Read, J., & Cartwright, C. (2011). The prevalence of voice-hearers in the general population: a literature review. Journal of Mental Health, 20(3), 281-292.
- Brown, A. S. (2003). A review of the déjà vu experience. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), 394–413.
- Cruse Bereavement Support. (2021, September 26). Seeing, hearing or sensing someone who has died. https://www.
- Neufeld, J., Roy, M., Zapf, A., Sinke, C., Emrich, H. M., Prox-Vagedes, V., … & Zedler, M. (2013). Is synesthesia more
common in patients with Asperger syndrome. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 847.
- Schubert, M., Schürch, R., Boettger, S., Nuñez, D. G., Schwarz, U., Bettex, D., … & Rudiger, A. (2018). A hospital- wide evaluation of delirium prevalence and outcomes in acute care patients-a cohort study. BMC health services research, 18(1), 1-12.