Ask The Therapist: “Whenever I close my eyes, I picture a chaos of displays. Is this normal?”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, or simply need advice about their problems, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained counsellor. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“I want to ask that whenever I get to my bed or sit back to relax, a continuous and strange sound and picture of people and happenings appears before my eyes. Whenever I close my eyes, a picture with a strange type of chaos displays. Is this normal?”

Haya’s Response:

Dear Anonymous,

What you are experiencing may be classified as hallucinations.

hallucination is anything that is sensed—heard, seen, felt, or even smelled—that is not real. The person experiencing a hallucination may believe that it’s real and everything about the vision, sound, voice, or sensation may seem very real. These are highly sensory experiences are created by your mind and can affect all five of your senses.

Hallucinations are characteristic symptoms of psychosis and mental illnesses that can trigger psychotic episodes, such as schizophrenia. They could also be the side effects of medication, depression, dementia fever or bereavement. Recent research has shown that 1 in 20 people have hallucinations that are not caused by drug use, alcohol, dreams, or psychotic disorders. So don’t worry, even while this may seem unusual and rare, you’re not alone.

Types of Hallucinations

Hallucinations can affect anything from your vision to taste and sense of smell – it just has to be related to the senses and different people will experience different things, even if they have the same condition. Here are some common types of hallucinations:

1. Visual hallucinations

Visual hallucinations involve seeing things that are not there or seeing things incorrectly. The hallucinations may be of objects, visual patterns, people or lights. You may see someone who’s not really in the room or may feel that the lights are flashing when they really aren’t.

2. Olfactory hallucinations

Olfactory hallucinations involve your sense of smell. You might smell an unpleasant odour when waking up in the middle of the night or feel that your body smells bad when it does not. Commonly people smell unpleasant odours but you could also smell pleasant scents, such as flowers. Olfactory hallucinations often indicate neurological damage to the olfactory system.

3. Gustatory hallucinations

Gustatory hallucinations are similar to olfactory hallucinations, but they involve your sense of taste instead. They cause a person to taste something strange or unpleasant (often with a metallic taste) that is not there is a common symptom for people with epilepsy.

4. Auditory hallucinations

Auditory hallucinations are the most common type of hallucination. People often hear someone speaking to them of telling them to do things. Auditory hallucination could also include hearing sounds such as hissing, whistling, repeated clicking or someone walking in the attic. These types of hallucinations are most commonly associated with schizophrenia, dementia and bipolar disorder, but can also be a cause of grief if you’ve lost a loved one and keep hearing their voice.

5. Tactile hallucinations

Tactile hallucinations involve the feeling of touch or movement in your body. For example, you might feel that bugs are crawling on your skin or that your internal organs are moving around. You might also feel the imagined touch of someone’s hands on your body.

What causes hallucinations?

I know it can sound and seem quite scary, especially if you start experiencing these hallucinations out of the blue, but there are quite a few reasons behind them, including:

  • Mental health conditions – these are the most common cause of hallucinations. Conditions such as schizophrenia, dementia and delirium are a few examples.
  • Substance abuse – some people may hear or see things that do not exist after taking drug or drinking too much alcohol. Drugs such as LSD and PCP are hallucinogenic in nature, which means they make you hallucinate.
  • Lack of sleep – sometimes, not getting enough sleep can cause you to see things that don’t exist. If you haven’t slept in a long period of time, you may be more prone to hallucinations. It’s also possible to experience hallucinations right before falling asleep (hypnagogic hallucinations) or right before waking up from sleep (hypnopompic hallucinations).
  • Medications – in most cases, medications are the cause behind hallucinations. Medications for Parkinson’s disease, depression, psychosis and epilepsy can trigger hallucinations.
  • High fevers & migraines – these are extremely common in children and the elderly
  • Social isolation – particularly in older adults
  • Deafness, blindness, or vision problems
  • Epilepsy/Seizures – in some cases, epileptic seizures can cause you to see flashing shapes or bright spots
  • Terminal illness – Stage 3 HIV (AIDS), brain cancer, kidney or liver failure

What should you do next?

There is evidence that perfectly healthy people sometimes experience hallucinations. While one episode of a hallucination does not necessarily indicate a serious underlying condition, one should still get checked out by either a medical doctor or mental health professional. Depending on the cause of your hallucinations, you will need to visit a psychiatrist, a neurologist or general practitioner.

If a physical or mental illness is found, your medical professional will give you a thorough treatment plan that may include medication and therapy. Recovery also depends on the cause; if you are not sleeping enough or the hallucinations are a side effect from a drug, these behaviors can be adjusted.

If you know someone who is hallucinating, do not leave him or her alone. In some severe cases, fear and paranoia triggered by hallucinations can lead to dangerous actions or behaviors. Stay with the person at all times and go with them to the doctor for emotional support. You may also be able to help answer questions about their symptoms and how often they occur.

Your doctor will be able to recommend the best form of treatment for you once they figure out what is causing your hallucinations.

Good luck!

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