Anxiety disorders can be sources of life-altering distress. People who have anxiety disorders may drastically limit or change their behaviors because they believe that they are in imminent danger, even when no credible threat exists. Since these conditions are associated with an impaired ability to correctly perceive one’s environment, people may wonder if anxiety can cause hallucinations.
How Exactly Does Anxiety Affect the Brain?
Anxiety affects the brain by causing people to experience intense apprehension, worry, or fear that is either unrelated to a specific cause or disproportionate to the event or circumstances that prompted these emotions.
Some anxiety disorders can also cause physical symptoms such as dizziness, elevated body temperature, racing heart rate, and a sense of being choked or smothered.
Research suggests that anxiety disorders may bring about these effects by disrupting communication among areas of the brain that are associated with emotional processing. These areas, which include the amygdala, hypothalamus, thalamus, and hippocampus, are important parts of a network called the limbic system.
Among other responsibilities, the limbic system controls the brain’s “fight or flight” response. In other words, it interprets potential threats and triggers automatic reactions. In people who have anxiety disorders, the limbic system may trigger these responses when there is no threat, or when the threat actually poses minimal risk of harm.
Types of Hallucinations
Before we explore whether or not anxiety can cause hallucinations, it is important to understand exactly what hallucinations are.
Hallucinations are sensory perceptions that are not associated with a tangible external stimulus. In other words, people who have hallucinations may see, hear, feel, taste, or smell things that are not real.
The three most common types of hallucinations are auditory, visual, and tactile:
- Auditory hallucinations: This is the most common type of hallucination. People who experience auditory hallucinations hear voices or sounds that do not actually exist. Auditory hallucinations have been linked to schizophrenia, depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders.
- Visual hallucinations: Visual hallucinations involve seeing people, objects, light patterns, or other things that aren’t there. Visual hallucinations are associated with several mental health concerns, including psychosis, dementia, and delirium.
- Tactile hallucinations: Tactile hallucinations are characterized by the sensation that a person is being touched by something, or that something is inside them. An example of a tactile hallucination is the feeling that bugs are crawling on or underneath a person’s skin. Tactile hallucinations may be symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other mental health conditions.
People may also have olfactory hallucinations (affecting sense of smell) or gustatory hallucinations (involving taste), but these are less common than auditory, visual, and tactile hallucinations.
Can Anxiety Cause Hallucinations?
In the previous section, we noted that hallucinations can be symptoms of several mental health concerns. They may also result from the ingestion of or withdrawal from certain substances.
But we haven’t yet answered a key question: Can anxiety cause hallucinations?
Hallucinations are not among the more common symptoms of anxiety disorders. But they can occur in people who have various types of anxiety.
A study in the January 2016 edition of the journal Consciousness and Cognition documented a connection between anxiety and auditory hallucinations. This study noted that anxiety may cause verbal hallucinations (this is the subset of auditory hallucinations that involves hearing voices).
Also, a 2015 report in the Shanghai Archives of Psychiatry described a man who had anxiety and hallucinations. This man, who had developed social phobia and agoraphobia, also experienced what the report’s authors described as “distressing and incapacitating” visual hallucinations.
Neither of these reports definitively prove that anxiety can cause hallucinations. But these and other research efforts demonstrate that people who have anxiety can and do experience hallucinations.
How to Treat Anxiety
Comprehensive treatment for an anxiety disorder often involves medication to ease certain symptoms and therapy to help people take greater control of their thought and behavior patterns.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) are among the many therapeutic options that may be beneficial for someone who has an anxiety disorder.
If a person also has a history of trauma, their care may also include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and other services.
For people who have severe symptoms, inpatient treatment may be necessary. While a person is receiving inpatient treatment for anxiety, they will follow a highly structured schedule and receive round-the-clock supervision.
For people with less acute symptoms, or for those who need step-down support after completing inpatient treatment, a partial hospitalization program (PHP) or intensive outpatient program (IOP) may be the best option. Both of these levels feature personalized clinical services without a residential requirement.
How to Treat Hallucinations
As is the case with anxiety disorders, treatment for hallucinations typically incorporates both therapy and medication.
CBT is one of the primary forms of therapy for people who have been having hallucinations. ACT is also often incorporated into treatment.
Aripiprazole, clozapine, paliperidone, and risperidone are examples of medications that may be used to treat someone who has been experiencing hallucinations. These medications are often categorized as second-generation, or atypical, antipsychotics.
First-generation, or typical, antipsychotics may also be used to treat hallucinations. This category includes chlorpromazine, haloperidol, and loxapine. These are older medications that may have stronger side effects, but which can still be beneficial.
Begin Treatment for Anxiety and/or Hallucinations in Los Angeles
Montare Behavioral Health is a premier source of personalized care for adults whose lives have been disrupted by anxiety disorders, hallucinations, and other mental health concerns. At our center in Los Angeles, adults receive evidence-based services and comprehensive support from a team of skilled and experienced professionals. Contact us today to learn more.