Making sense of unusual experiences

There are many different ways of making sense of unusual experiences. You might have one understanding, while someone else with the same experiences could have a completely different explanation. There is no right or wrong conclusion.

This section describes the most common ways that people make sense of their unusual experiences:

• Psychological responses to difficult life experiences
• Symptoms of a 'mental illness'
• Opportunities for personal growth
• Religious or spiritual experiences

 You might agree with some or none of these.


What if I don’t know how to understand my unusual experiences?

It’s completely normal to feel unsure and not to know what explanation fits best for you. Many people are puzzled in the beginning, and some unusual experiences can be hard to put into words. Often, different ways of making sense can exist at the same time.

I think, personally, that both things helped me: the spiritual side and the medical side - Omar (1)

We know it can be really hard to speak to other people about unusual experiences, but the support of professionals, family, friends, or people who have gone through something similar, can be really helpful. At OASIS, we can support you in the process of understanding and overcoming. 

However you make sense of your unusual experiences, if you’re having a hard time then it’s worth reaching out. You can start by visiting our page on getting help.


Open each tab to learn about common ways that people make sense of their unusual experiences.

Many people think of their unusual experiences as normal psychological responses to stress and difficult life events.  The experiences might be related to stresses and traumas from growing up, or to having been bullied, discriminated against or victimised in later life.

We shouldn't ask, 'what is wrong with you?' but, 'what has happened to you?' - Jacqui Dillon (voice hearer and chair of the Hearing Voices Network)

Although everyone's experiences are different, and may feel confusing or chaotic, we find that most experiences are understandable when we take into account what a person has been through.

I thought I was bad because the voices called me all sorts of names. Later I realised that the voices were related to the physical abuse because they have the characteristics of those that abused me. Then I noticed that the voices became more or less intrusive depending on the situation I was in. They became bad when there were conflicts in the house. So they were a kind of mirror of my living situation - Daan Marsman (2)

Some people who are distressed by experiences like hearing voices or feeling paranoid find it helpful to think of these as symptoms of a mental illness. This idea can have advantages, like feeling reassured at having a name for the problem or feeling more confident to seek professional help.

I went to the doctor because I didn’t understand why I was seeing and hearing things, why I couldn’t just be around people without feeling weird… The doctor gave me a diagnosis which was what I was looking for - OASIS service user


I think I prefer my illness having a name because it makes me feel less lonely, and I know that there are other people experiencing my kind of misery. And that people live through my illness and make a meaningful existence with it. But I also have to be careful not to adopt the sick role, since I know I would just give up if I did that - Karin Falk (3)

Some people understand their unusual experiences as signs of a personal crisis or an opportunity for growth and development.

When you can’t find a way out when you get into a complex situation, they (voices) help guide you. You don’t have to listen, you don’t have to take their advice but it’s nice that they give it anyway - Karen (4)

Unusual experiences may lead a person to think about the direction of their lives, and changes they’d like to make.

It happened at a point where I was considering what to do, and this experience gained me the time to reflect . . . it helped me a lot to like order my thoughts about how I should proceed . . . somehow it fitted in the moment - Stephan (3)

For many people, unusual experiences are seen as having religious or spiritual significance. For example, some people view their experiences as coming from God, the devil, Jinn or other supernatural sources. Some people see their experiences as a sign of being special in some way, while others can worry that they are cursed or have done something wrong. Even if you see your unusual experiences as religious, it can still be really helpful to access support in understanding and managing them.

It was such a positive thing, and was such a, kind of, enlightening thing . . . just full of these realisations that were kind of setting me free from this darkness, that it just, yeah, I would definitely ascribe it to God now - Holly (1)



1. Heriot-Maitland, C. et al. (2012). A qualitative comparison of psychotic-like phenomena in clinical and non-clinical populations. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 51 (1)

2. Marsman, D. (2009). In: Romme, M. et al. Living with voices: 50 stories of recovery.

3. Falk, K. (2010). In British Psychological Society Understanding Bipolar Disorder: Why some people experience extreme mood states and what can help, p.32. Leicester: British Psychological Society

4. Jackson, L. J. et al. (2010). Developing a positive relationship with voices: a preliminary grounded theory