Called ‘hallucinations’ by doctors, seeing things that other people can’t see is surprisingly common. One example is that people who are grieving the loss of a loved one often think they see them in public. This is very common and does not mean the person is mentally unwell.
Changes in what we see can vary greatly. Some people may find that only their peripheral vision is affected, some people have small shifts in their perceptions such as altered colours or textures. Some people can tell that their visions can’t be seen by other people, some people see things so vividly and real looking that they have great difficulty figuring out what is going on. Visions can be very specific and fixed such as seeing a person who follows you around for 2 years, or they can be broad and fluid and changing all the time – seeing rain falling, walls melting, beetles crawling on your skin, wings behind people at the bus stop. Visions may be accompanied by other experiences such as hearing voices or other sounds that other people can’t hear, or smelling, tasting, or feeling sensations that other people can’t. People may be aware they are seeing visions that other people can’t, or they may be confused by other people’s lack of reactions, or think people are lying to them.
People’s responses to visions are also extremely varied. Some people see things they find comforting, such as the spirit of a departed friend. Others can be confused or frustrated by visions that keep them awake at night or make it difficult to function – for example driving may be unsafe or it may be very difficult to focus in lectures. Some people are deeply afraid of the things they are seeing, or the awareness that they are seeing things other people can’t, or the meaning they have made of the things they are seeing.
It may be helpful to think of visions as being a little similar to dreams. They might make sense and have a kind of storyline. They might be random flashes of ideas, fragmented and incoherent. They might be pleasant, restful, or hopeful. Or they might be terrifying nightmares. People’s stress and anxiety levels, and other challenges such as a history of abuse or trauma can make visions terrifying rather than comforting. While people who don’t have visions often think that reassuring a frightened person that what they are seeing is not ‘real’, the awareness that you are seeing things that others can’t, and not being able to make it stop can be terrifying. People can be even more terrified of being ‘crazy’ than they are of frightening visions.
Visions, like voices and other personal perceptions, can be caused by many different things. Infections, high fevers, heat stroke, some drugs and medications, major emotional stress or trauma, grief, and some conditions such as dementia. It’s important not to assume the cause is psychological without ruling out other physical problems. But it’s also not cause for fear or hopelessness if a psychological cause is found. For most people, the experiences are brief and resolve when the stress is lowered. For some people, such as those with some forms of dementia, they may continue to see things others can’t, but by working on reducing their stress and fear, the visions are less frightening and become harmless or even comforting such as seeing and feeling a pet cat who visits them in hospital and sleeps on their bed.
Sometimes medications such as tranquillisers can help reduce or eliminate visions. People who are struggling with safety and being able to make sense of what part of their perceptions are shared by other people and what are visions can be greatly supported by one or two trusted people who are not frightened or judgemental and can help them figure out what’s going on.
People understand their visions in different ways. Some find a medical model helpful – their brain is misfiring or confused and they are hallucinating things that are not real. Some people consider their visions to be psychic, perception of other dimensions, or have spiritual frameworks that fit their religious beliefs. There are many ways to understand the experience of seeing visions, and it can help to have a safe space to explore these, particularly if a person’s current understanding is making them frightened or leaving them ‘stuck’ with how to manage the experience. It can sometimes be more helpful to discuss a person’s experience of visions in terms of their ‘inner reality’ and ‘shared reality’, rather than things that are not real and real, because for people who see visions they are very real to them and may be extremely meaningful.