We all want to be able to trust our own brains. Everything we know and experience comes through our minds. When your mind seems to be playing tricks on you, it can be unsettling—sometimes terrifying. Everyone’s brain has glitches every now and then. But feeling like your brain is constantly messing with you is often a sign of a mental health condition that needs attention and treatment.
Your mind can play tricks on you in different ways. Certain patterns are associated with certain mental health conditions:
- Trauma and anxiety: When you experience trauma, your brain becomes hyper-aware of all the potential dangers around you. You might notice frightening sounds or things moving in the corner of your eye, only to realize when you look closer that it was something harmless, like a leaf blowing in the wind. You might have a sense of constant anxiety but can never really pinpoint what you’re worried about. Anxiety can also draw your attention away from things you normally would have noticed.
- Abuse: You may have had a parent or a romantic partner who taught you not to trust your own feelings and memories. When we’re repeatedly told things like, “That never happened,” or “Why are you so upset? It’s not a big deal,” we can start to feel like we’re going crazy.
- ADHD: People with ADHD have trouble concentrating and paying attention to things. You might have trouble remembering conversations you’ve had. Or you might find yourself going in circles because you keep forgetting where you were going or what you were trying to do.
- Psychosis: For people experiencing psychosis, the feeling of your mind playing tricks on you is much more intense. You might see or hear things that aren’t there. You might not be sure what’s real and what’s not. Or you might have a vague sense that things are “weird” or abnormal, without knowing exactly why.
The tricks psychosis can play with your brain
The phrase “my brain is playing tricks on me” is so common among those experiencing psychosis that it’s included as one of the symptoms we ask people about when they have early signs of psychosis. Psychosis is common: 3% of people experience these kinds of symptoms. For some people, psychosis can be triggered by major life events. These symptoms might come and go—which means you can experience it for a while and then never again. For others, symptoms can stick around, become worse, or become scarier. At some point, you may realize that something bad is happening, and that you need to take action before it gets out of hand.
For 1% of the population (about 1 in 3 people who experience psychosis), these symptoms will get worse and eventually develop into illnesses like schizophrenia.
Below are some questions  that mental health professionals ask people when they say things like “my brain is playing tricks on me”:
- Have you had the feeling that something odd is going on or that something is wrong that you can’t explain?
- Have you ever been confused at times whether something you have experienced is real or imaginary?
- Do familiar people or surroundings ever seem strange? Confusing? Unreal? Not a part of the living world? Alien? Inhuman? Evil?
- Does your experience of time seem to have changed? Unnaturally faster, unnaturally slower?
- Have you felt that you are not in control of your own ideas or thoughts?
- Do you ever feel that your ears are playing tricks on you?
- Do you ever hear unusual sounds like banging, clicking, hissing, clapping, ringing in your ears?
- Do you ever think you hear sounds and then realize that there is probably nothing there?
- Do you ever hear your own thoughts as if they are being spoken outside your head?
- Do you ever hear a voice that others don’t seem to or can’t hear? Does it sound clearly like a voice speaking to you as I am now? Could it be your own thoughts or is it clearly a voice speaking out loud?
- Do you ever feel your eyes are playing tricks on you?
- Do you ever see things that others can’t or don’t seem to see?
- Do you seem to feel more sensitive to light or do things that you see ever appear different in color, brightness or dullness; or have they changed in some other way?
- Have you ever seen unusual things like flashes, flames, vague figures or shadows out of the corner of your eye?
- Do you ever think you see people, animals, or things, but then realize they may not really be there?
If you said yes to some of these questions, it’s worthwhile to take a free and confidential screen here.
After you do that, reach out to someone you trust to talk about these experiences. The earlier you identify solutions, the better.
- These questions were pulled from the Structured Interview for Prodromal Symptoms: http://www.easacommunity.org/files/SIPS_V5-1-1%20V5.doc