As a transpersonal psychologist, I’m very interested in the spiritual aspect of the human condition. During my training, I was fascinated to learn about the term spiritual emergency. While the concept has similarities to that of psychosis, in my mind it seems to have a more positive and beneficial vibe connected to it, in that it may lead to transformation or a sense of empowerment.
The term spiritual emergency (sometimes called a psychospiritual crisis), was coined by psychotherapist Christina Grov and her husband, psychiatrist Stanilov Grov. It typically occurs after, or is triggered by, a physical or emotional life-enhancing or awe-inspiring experience. It may also be triggered by a lack of sleep or matters related to childbirth, miscarriage, or abortion. Extreme sexual experiences can also result in a spiritual emergency. Sometimes the trigger may be connected to a deep spiritual practice or meditation. Another interesting fact is that often those experiencing spiritual emergencies seem to seek self-expression in the arts through painting, music, or writing—all languages of the soul.
Spiritual emergencies may be classified as peak experiences, past-life experiences, channeling with spirit guides, Kundalini experiences, dark and night possessions, near-death experiences, UFO encounters, or drug and alcohol addictions.
It seems that a cultural basis might determine whether an experience is labeled psychotic or spiritual. For example, individuals such as shamans, prophets, spiritual teachers, saints, or luminaries may be considered brilliant because they transcend the human experience. Yet others having similar experiences might be labeled psychotic even though both groups might benefit from, or become transformed by, the experience.
Both psychotic and spiritual experiences involve escaping the limiting boundaries of the self, which leads to immense elation and freedom as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down. Anthropologists have documented how such experiences sometimes lead to a revitalization within a culture (Wallace, 1956). Transpersonal psychologists believe that the spiritual emergency can be quite powerful because the experience tends to transcend the ego and may be a natural developmental process that has psychological and spiritual elements.
For instance, Stanislav and Christina Grof have described the spiritual emergency as a crisis often resulting in intense emotions, unusual thoughts and behaviors, and perceptual changes. This crisis often involves a spiritual component—such as experiences of death and rebirth, unity with the universe, and encounters with powerful beings. Such crises bring about the potential for profound psychological and spiritual change (Grof & Grof, 1989), but often appear to be similar to psychotic disorders.
The experience of a spiritual emergency—if managed and treated under supervision—can therefore be life-changing and offer the individual a deeper sense of passion, wisdom, love, and zest for life—and an expanded worldview and overall psychosomatic health. Whatever the chosen method of treatment, chronicling by both the patient via journaling and the therapist via notes will definitely prove to be beneficial, always keeping in mind that dating the event is crucial. It might also be interesting for the client to review and compare journal entries in case there are subsequent events.
If one believes in the tenet that all experiences are transformative, then there’s something to learn from each one of them, either at the time or after by comparing journal entries. But chances are there’s more to learn from a spiritual emergency than from a psychotic episode because it might be a more profound experience. As Socrates once said: “Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided that madness is given us by divine gift” (Dodds, 1951).
Buddhist leaders such as Jack Kornfield (1989) suggest that it’s best to label this type of experience without fully identifying with it. He also recommends maintaining a sense of balance and grounding oneself by bringing attention to the body and the earth.
In the ideal scenario, the therapist should, as much as possible, normalize the experience and express it in an educational and transformative way. This is preferable to making the client feel abnormal. It’s also beneficial to accentuate what may be learned from the situation. The experience should be viewed as a container or opportunity for healing, transformation, or growth, rather than something that is detrimental. In summary, the primary difference between psychosis and spiritual emergency has more to do with the diagnostician and the suggested treatment than anything else.
Dodds, E. (1951). The Greeks and the irrational. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gortetski, M., Talbourne, M.A., & Storm, L. (2009). "The questionnaire measurement of spiritual emergency." Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 41, 81–97.
Grof, S., & Grof, C. (1989). Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Kornfield, J. (1989). Obstacles and vicissitudes in spiritual practice. In S. Grof & C. When personal transformation becomes a crisis. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Wallace, A. (1956). Stress and rapid personality changes. International Record of Medicine. 169(12), 761–774.