Delusions and hallucinations: What are they?

Most of us trust our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. If we hear something, we assume it to be real. Imagine someone telling you that what you feel or heard wasn’t real. Would you be inclined to believe them? Probably not. And the more they tried to convince you that you were crazy, the more you might see them as trying to deceive you.

That is a little piece of the world of those who experience psychotic symptoms–where they believe, feel, hear, experience things that others deny are real.

So, what is happening when someone comes to believe they are Jesus Christ in the flesh? What is happening when someone hears a voice telling them that they should die?

Possible explanations:

1. Misinterpretation of feelings and perceptions. I walk into a room and the hair of my neck rises. Does it mean that there is a lot of static electricity in the room? That I’m nervous in crowds? Or that someone is beaming thoughts at me? One explanation is that I’m mis-reading the data.

2. Mis-firing of neurons in the perception areas of the brain. I know that isn’t exactly the scientific language we ought to use but it is true that certain electrical stimulation of the brain leads to perceiving smells and sights that are not real. Elevations of dopamine and other neurotransmitters are possible causes of psychosis.

3. Real supernatural experiences. It is possible that spiritual forces are at play and the person is hearing what is being sent to them. Now, whether those forces are telling the truth or not may be the question the person ought to entertain. Further, labeling these symptoms as supernatural does not necessitate a supernatural response (e.g., casting out demons). Deception may be broken by basic Christian responses (e.g., prayer, submission to the Word) and by medications.

As a Christian psychologist I believe all three are at play in any disease. We are individuals with broken bodies that do not work right. We are mis-perceiving and vulnerable to deception. I cannot say for sure that someone who believes themselves to be a prophet is lying. However, if they are not evidencing the fruit of the Spirit in their lives then I do question the validity of their identity.

Counselees experiencing intruding sensations and perceptions can break their influence when they are able to attend to other “data”. For example, “I feel others are out to get me but I will live as one who trusts in the Lord rather than in my ability to prove to others that I am in danger.” “I will not use violence or rage to be heard.” “I will not isolate in order to be safe.” “I feel like God has me here for a special reason but I will not neglect caring for my children nor abuse those who do not think I have a special calling.”

Counselors will find more success joining counselees, accepting their reality, rather than merely attacking their beliefs. It is possible that my counselee is a prophet but I can still encourage them to faithful work, love, and honor of those around them.

[Note: I’m not covering the issues of medications, hospitalization, and other psychiatric treatments in this post. These are important and not merely ancillary to the care of those struggling against psychotic symptoms. I am only musing on the possible causes of delusions and hallucinations.]


Filed under counseling, counseling skills, deception, Psychology

3 responses to “Delusions and hallucinations: What are they?

  1. Sharon

    It is interesting what you say and ideally it would be great if people in a psychotic state heeded your advice. Belief in God is not enough to make one behave rationally in such a state. When your life is in turmoil, you try to hold on to faith and belief. You try to capture the goodness and the righteousness around you. You start thinking that by repenting your sins and by doing good work that perhaps the burden of madness will be lifted. Some people may say things that are unhelpful, like it’s God’s will. You start wondering what you could have done that would provoke such a “punishment”.
    You may start to see things that seem to point to acting out a “leap of faith” . You might start by denying the validity of these delusions or hallucinations because, rationally you don’ t want to lose your life or think that you are Jesus. When you go through such a state, it is very hard to believe that even after praying constantly God would let you go through such a trial.
    Often in the build up to such an event it will be someone close to you or someone you trust that will say something that is not helpful, makes you feel unforgiven or not good enough. They might be good Christians but they may, unwittingly make you feel that what you endure is under your control.
    In the build up, there is a stage of non-return, after passing this, few things stay rational.
    There is a place for medication all through these events. And there is also a place for validating awful events in people’s lives without trying to put a positive spin on it or without trying to make light of it, with or without the bible.
    What such a person needs is compassion not judgement. One does not know how the spirit touches people until one can walk in their shoes. And it is perfectly obvious to say that it was a psychotic breakdown, or indeed “evil spirit” after the fact. At the time, it feels like a trial between you and God.

  2. Cherie

    After walking the walk with our son who has suffered from pyschosis I dont believe he was able to rationalize what is real and what isn’t real at that time. From what we were told and understand to be true it is the rational part of the brain which is not working correctly, This part of the brain normally monitors and sieves information and events putting them into perspective. If you can no longer believe what you are seeing or hearing your whole world is turned upside down. I don;t believe one can really understand this unless it has actually been experienced. We have struggled often to understand what our son is going through. After he received treatment and the medicaition started to work he told us that he had felt like this for as long as he could remember and didn’t realise that other people didnt feel like this. I believe it was our love and the love of God which has helped him to hang on in there while waiting for the medication to correct chemical inbalances and let him regain some confidence again in himself. Neither our son or us have lost our faith that God loves us but as it is with some mental illness or personality disorders or intellectual disabilaties and physical disablilities our bodies are imperfect and will remain so until we leave this life. Before this happened to us I would have thought that a person probably needed more faith or even deliverance from a evil spirit. Now I just have to hold onto God and know he loves us no matter what happens.

  3. Candace

    Having had a psychotic break myself I can speak firsthand that the last thing you need is to have someone tell you you are crazy or that you have some unconfessed sin in your life, even if you do. Like everyone and anyone going through a horrific moment in time you need support, compassion, encouragement and your neediness need not be minimized to a need to grow up or that you are dysfunctional. Jesus has carried me through many many hard times because I had no one but a young daughter who could be there for me. I had no one, my family being dysfunctional left me to be on my own – to work out my issues with God. Seeking counsel from a Christian psychiatrist, medication and patience with myself has me pretty normal now. I still do not always trust my perception and with reason, I still have hallucinations when under distress. I personally think they are a part of my self-protection, even though I know I am safe. Thank God He is patient and is helping my mind heal, and that medication is still a part of my life.

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