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How friends and families can help those who are at risk of psychosis

Hearing voices can make you anxious. Preethi Premkumar, Author provided

When you think of paranormal experiences it often conjures images of ghosts, aliens or witchcraft. But it can also include hearing voices, out-of-body experiences, or even strong spiritual or superstitious beliefs. Such experiences are quite common – 75% of people in Britain have said that they have had one or more paranormal experiences in their lifetime. These are usually fleeting though, and very few report having paranormal experiences continuously over a two year period.

However, paranormal experiences can stabilise in a small proportion of people – those with a schizotypal personality, who have regular paranormal experiences which resemble milder forms of those seen in people who suffer from schizophrenia. Although only 0.6% of this group will actually develop psychosis, they may experience high levels of social anxiety which can lead them to avoid social interactions.

However, research has shown that this avoidance is seen less in those who have supportive friends and family. It means that this support could actually reduce the chances of developing psychosis.

People with a schizotypal personality often have poor social interactions because they find them unrewarding and can have difficulty maintaining focus in social situations. They often fear that others will ridicule them or dismiss their experiences, and that telling others about their paranormal experiences would devalue their beliefs. But what makes those with paranormal beliefs struggle with social interaction in this way?

Abnormal responses to praise

A brain imaging study in 2012 revealed what happens in the brain when schizotypal people are in social situations. Their brains were imaged while they viewed scenes depicting social rejection. The researchers found that these people disengaged brain areas associated with social pain and the ability to empathise with others, to stop them from being hurt in a way that those without experiences did not.

People who have paranormal experiences not only actively distance themselves from social rejection, but may also unconsciously direct their attention towards it. When those with paranormal experiences viewed scenes of either social acceptance, or even criticism from a close relative, nothing unusual is seen in the brain. However, when they heard praise from a close relative, they activated the insula and thalamus areas – which assess the importance and reward value of an event – less than those who do not have paranormal experiences. This implies that people with paranormal experiences actually find praise unrewarding.

Family influences

People with schizotypal personality often have poor communication with their families, and are more likely to experience hostility than others. It’s also unfortunate that, in those who “hear voices” in their heads, the disempowering social interactions they have with their families leads the voices they hear to also become disempowering.

Paranormal experiences are often not believed. Shutterstock

The way in which those with paranormal experiences talk about their family communications is often described as “odd”. When people with paranormal experiences were recorded during an interview about people in their life that they resented, they displayed more avoidant and hostile behaviours compared to those without such experiences. This in turn made the interviewer feel more anxious and angry – a reaction that would not help any situation.

In order to help, the family could offer more emotional support, by being more accepting and less critical about their relative’s paranormal experiences. They could also be more encouraging about the person’s discussion of their paranormal experiences.

People who do not normally have paranormal experiences are more likely to believe in such things if they thought that a person in a professional capacity also believed in it or if the scientific community accepted those beliefs. Although a family may not believe in the paranormal, they could try to believe that the person has an experience of some type – whether these really have paranormal origins or not – so that the person with these experiences feels more personal satisfaction when they talk about them.

One study taught individuals how to disclose their paranormal beliefs to others in ten weeks of training. They reported that by writing about their self-development and sharing it with like-minded people, they found more meaning in life and felt less stressed.

Sharing their paranormal experiences with people they can trust allows those with schizotypal personality to overcome social alienation, experience personal growth and feel less anxiety. If a person with schizotypal personality could share their experiences with their family and have a wider acceptance of their paranormal experiences, then this could help to reduce the social exclusion they feel. Close family and friends who show more emotional support can reduce the risk of them feeling distressed – and even help them from developing psychosis.

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