Getting Support For Spiritual Emergency
When your experience is not accepted as real or not visible to other people and considered a mark of mental illness, then it can seem safer to bury it.
Ann woke up in the middle of the night extremely disturbed, left her husband asleep in their bed, and ran crying to call 911. She told the dispatcher that her husband was trying to kill her and she needed help immediately. Police arrived shortly thereafter, but her husband was calm. The police and Ann’s family felt she belonged in the hospital for psych evaluation. Despite being a licensed social worker and trainer, Ann knew she was imagining things that weren’t real and had reacted irrationally. She’d lost her balance. Her husband was a loving, supportive man who had never even come close to physically abusing her.
For the next two years Ann was put on anti-psychotics to stop what her doctors believed to be hallucinations — violent images that sometimes invaded her consciousness. A side effect of the drugs was gaining over 50 pounds and not being able to lead what she thought of as a normal life, working and attending to her husband and son. Her inner life felt blunted while she was on the medication.
However, during her first hospital stay Ann also experienced the spark of divinity within her — her own God-self. It came to her as the voice of Jesus Christ. So, Ann was drawn to read books that reinforced her notion that she, like others, can have a direct connection to the God-self. She practiced connecting often. Fearlessly compelled, she started writing what came to her through this direct connection — channeling God. All the while, she still wondered if she was crazy.
After Ann’s second (and last) hospitalization she felt the drugs, themselves, were actually causing an overlay of more disturbance. Under responsible supervision by an integrative psychiatrist, she began withdrawing from the medication. Distinct memories she had previously locked in her subconscious then arose of how her father had tried on several occasions to murder her mother.
Ann then realized: “My initial disturbance when I called the police was that memory coming forward in my consciousness, but in a distorted way, with no reference to time. It wasn’t my husband trying to murder me; it was the trauma of being a young child and seeing my father attempting to murder my mother. And my mother always acted as if nothing bad had ever happened. It was surreal. She was in denial and passed that on to me and my brother.”
As Ann’s mind became clearer and she systematically mined her memories, she also became aware of times she had perceived Jesus Christ close to her during other traumatic events early in childhood. She wanted to reclaim and validate the memories, as well as the emotions embedded in her that had not been safe to express in childhood with her parents. She was now weaving together the life story that was real for her, a story of both profound spiritual connection and profound trauma, a story that had stretched her emotionally, spiritually and mentally to the breaking point.
Ann now knows she had a spiritual emergency — a psycho-spiritual crisis that chaotically mixes flashbacks to past trauma with profound spiritual experiences. Unfortunately, nurses and doctors are not conventionally trained to recognize or support someone in such emergencies. With compassion they give medication to relieve the patient from what appears to be self-defeating hallucinations. They typically have no other resources to provide and don’t have time to listen to the patient’s personal story to reach the real causes of disturbance.
People experiencing spiritual emergency today are not finding adequate support from conventional healthcare providers. Yet, there are more positive outcomes when experiencers get adequate support: deeper peace, profound self-acceptance, lack of depression and anxiety, expanded consciousness, profound knowing of our reason for being alive, increased empathy and ability to intuit other’s problems as a medical intuitive, even heal at a distance.
However, it can be challenging to find qualified support people to help integrate these experiences in order to reach that positive outcome. While online groups can provide a base for people to find others who feel destabilized by profound spiritual experiences often mixed with anxiety, depression and/or strong physical sensations, there remain personal questions that cannot always be answered by peers online: Is this energetic tremor moving up my back a sign of kundalini rising or blocked energy left from trauma? Can my yoga instructor help me resolve my problem or do I need a trauma-informed psychotherapist? Can I assume all energy workers are skilled in helping me through this? Maybe I need a psychiatrist?
What Causes Spiritual Emergency?
According to psycho-spiritual emergency researcher Steve Taylor, PhD, most of these crises are caused by stress after the loss of a loved one or job, a health or financial setback, confusion over a major decision like a career choice, loneliness, domestic abuse, daily overwhelm, or, like Ann, uncovering trauma from the past. Various forms of meditation, yoga or psychedelics can also expose one to dimensions of their reality that may cause overwhelm. One or more of these can tip the scales, causing us to lose our balance or judgment for a time as Ann did when she called 911.
Other ways that spiritual emergencies might manifest include experiencing the presence of ancestor spirits, acknowledging past lives in ourselves and our loved ones, experiencing our own divinity, or seeing and feeling auras and energy fields. Memories of being abused as a child previously tucked away in the unconscious may suddenly become real.
When we don’t have a cognitive framework for these experiences or we are told, “That never happened — or couldn’t happen,” overwhelm can set in. Unpacking years of denial in ourselves or our parents and ancestors is no simple task, nor is finding the real truth. Fear easily steps in since most of us were taught early that unusual spiritual experiences like talking to a spirit guide should — at best — only be spoken about as a fireside ghost story — or worse — understood as proof of mental illness. When your experience is not accepted as real or not visible to other people and considered a mark of mental illness, then it can seem safer to bury it.
These kinds of overwhelming experiences deeply challenge our sense of identity. Experiencers ask themselves: “Can I accurately perceive reality? Am I crazy? Will my family and friends still love me if I tell them what I’m experiencing? Will they think I’m crazy? Should I talk to a psychiatrist? Should I take medications to stop these hallucinations? Who can I trust as a support person?” Along with these deep questions often comes a need for time out — to stop work, cut back on household chores and childcare, reflect on what in our heart of hearts is true, and sort out our next steps in life. We might use that time to ask ourselves, “Do I want to confront the person who abused me earlier in my life? Do I want to read about those who talk to the dead or about esoteric Yogic philosophy? Do I want to take a course on mediumship?”
We are living in a time that yogic sages call the transition into the Dwapara Age. In that age it is said that more people will see auras and energy fields, communicate through mental telepathy, and elevate consciousness into direct communication with the divine. It is a transformative age, an Atomic Age, when medicine, psychiatry, and all the sciences will integrate more fully the essence of what Einstein summed up 100 years ago: “Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.”
All things vibrate at a specific level. Match that level and you can explore different realities. Spiritual emergence moves us dramatically towards these new realities. While the wonders of modern medicine’s pharmacy and technology can provide miraculous healing, we can also add knowledge of consciousness itself, and a blissful connection to the source of our being as extraordinary resources for being more whole.
Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof and his wife, Christina, started the first Spiritual Emergency Network in 1980. These pioneers recognized the need to have a shared language about these experiences to help us differentiate phenomena of spiritual awakening from symptoms of mental illness, and offer supportive connections. As a result of their initiative there are more resources for support today.
- International Spiritual Emergence Network gives contact information of offices throughout the world for qualified counselors in their regions at https://spiritualemergencenetwork.org.
- FiresideProject.org offers a psychedelic peer support line. All volunteers are rigorously trained and can be reached 7 days a week.
- spiritualemergenceanonymous.org is based on 12-step programs. The support people are laypeople who have had personal experience and some success in finding balance again. The site makes no claim that the sponsors are qualified to work with profoundly destabilizing issues.
- SpiritualAwakeningsInternational.org trains facilitators and offers online support groups led by them.
- American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences (ACISTE) trains professionals and offers a support directory at https://aciste.org/support-directory/.
- Integrative Mental Health University (IMHU) trains Spiritual Emergence Coaches® and provides an international directory at https://imhu.org/coaching/directory.
“Crazywise” Feature length film. https://crazywisefilm.com/
“Psychosis or Spiritual Awakening” TedTalk by Phil Borges. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFtsHf1lVI4
The Call of Spiritual Emergency: From Personal Crisis to Personal Transformation by Emma Bragdon, PhD. 1990 & 2013. HarperSanFrancisco & Lightening Up Press.
Healing the Split: Integrating Spirit Into Our Understanding of the Mentally Ill by John Nelson, MD. 1994. SUNY Press.
The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening by Steve Taylor, PhD. 2017. NewWorld Library.
Spiritual and Religious Competencies in Clinical Practice by Cassandra Vieten, PhD and Shelley Scammell, PsyD. 2015. New Harbinger.
Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis by Stanislav Grof, MD, and Christina Grof. 1989. TarcherPerigree.
A Sourcebook for Helping People in Spiritual Emergency by Emma Bragdon, PhD. 1988 & 2006. Lightening Up Press.
The Stormy Search for the Self: A Guide to Personal Growth through Transformational Crisis by Stanislav Grof, MD, and Christina Grof 1992. Jeremy P. Tarcher.
Emma Bragdon, PhD, is the Executive Director of Integrative Mental Health University (IMHU), which she founded in 2013. She wrote two of the first books on spiritual emergency and coordinated two invited conferences for professionals at Esalen Institute in 1985 to define spiritual emergency and the best ways to manage such a crisis. Dr. Bragdon maintains a private practice in Vermont and can be reached at EB@IMHU.org.