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When Is an Overload of Synchronicities Not Psychosis?

Spiritual emergencies may present with a flood of coincidences.

Key points

  • Differentiating high volumes of synchronicities from psychosis is a challenge to clinicians and to family members.
  • Clinical presentations may range from purely psychotic, mixed, to non-psychotic, to psycho-spiritual emergencies.
  • Key questions begin with making an appropriate diagnosis (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or drug-induced psychosis).

People who write about coincidence regularly receive messages like this:

I have to see a psychiatrist to satisfy my sons. I very scared and feel like I’ve been thru a lot. I pray that my kids “really don’t want their mom to feel this way.”

Many, Many, Many of the Things That Have Happened to Me Are “One of a Kind.” (I am not dumb but I am Naive). I seem to possess attributes that no one else does. If there are others “out there,” I want to meet them.

This person was reading my book Connecting with Coincidence for the second time before contacting me. Her family believes she is psychotic and needs to be on antipsychotic medication. The majority of psychiatrists and mental health professionals are likely to agree. Most do not recognize the limitations of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as succinctly outlined by schizophrenia expert Nancy Andreasen.

The criteria include only some characteristic symptoms of a disorder. They were never intended to provide a comprehensive description. Rather, they were conceived as gatekeepers—the minimum symptoms to make the diagnosis. Because the DSM is often used as a primary textbook or major diagnostic resource in many clinical and research settings, students typically do not know about other potentially important or interesting signs and symptoms that are not included in the DSM.1

For optimal family involvement and clinical care, a more fine-grained analysis is required. Two previous posts on this blog suggest a range of possibilities.

In the first post, a school teacher was flooded with intensely meaningful coincidences, at least five per week. She thought she was losing her mind. Reality was not what it had seemed. Three days of intensive psychotherapy righted the ship of her mind and opened up new possibilities for her failing marriage and views of the world.

The second post described a manic psychiatrist who required medications to control his mood swings. While manic he experiences high levels of meaningful coincidences that helped with his psychological and spiritual development.

A third case is described in the book A Second in Eternity, by Gary Wimmer. After a wild ride of many synchronicities, musician Wimmer2 entered into what could be called a mystical experience. When he came down to earth, he was hospitalized and started taking lithium because of his manic appearance. He was discharged and never again took the lithium. He continued to function as he had before this dramatic episode.

In a fourth example, an engineer wrote of how he experienced a spiritual awakening during a therapy session for social anxiety. He described subsequently becoming hypomanic during which time many areas his life improved dramatically. However, the amount of change he was experiencing was so dramatic that he feared he was becoming psychotic. He explained that when he read a post by psychologist Chris Mackey on the difference between psychosis and satori, an enlightened state of mind recognized throughout the entire world, he regained confidence in his sanity.

Differentiating the psycho-spiritual from psychotic

How might we differentiate meaningful spiritual, non-ordinary states of consciousness, from psychosis? It helps to consider the concept of spiritual emergency developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof3,4 who define it as a crisis involving religious, transpersonal, and or spiritual issues that provides opportunities for growth. To clarify the issues involved, we examine the questions posed by clinical psychologist David Lukoff, who experienced a spiritual emergency of his own in his early 20s, which overlapped with psychotic symptoms. He posed the following questions.

First, does the person suffer from a mental health problem consistent with a recognized psychiatric classification, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or drug-induced psychosis? Second, do their reactions involve mystical or transpersonal experiences, even if in the context of a crisis? Third, is a positive outcome likely? And finally, is there a likelihood of harm to the person or others?

Additional questions in relation to synchronicity include: Is the person acting in ways consistent with their long-held personal beliefs or philosophy? Can the person describe a rationale for the ways they are acting on synchronicity? If the person has acted in a way to use synchronicity as a guide, is there any evidence that their resulting actions are having positive outcomes as opposed to negative outcomes? Is the person otherwise showing signs of stability, such as currently being able to manage everyday life demands?

As the person quoted above illustrates, the experiencer might mistakenly believe that they have started to develop some utterly unique abilities and that they are therefore very special. This might lead to “psychic inflation” a form of grandiosity. This can be harmful to people’s mental health, especially if it is much exaggerated or long-lasting. Rather than helping people tap into a wider consciousness, which would usually help people’s empathy and connection with others, it can disrupt people’s relationships with others. It could also lead to a greater risk of psychosis.

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Many thanks to psychologist Chris Mackey who practices in Geelong, Australia for his major assistance in preparing this post. For further information on this subject please visit his website.

References

1) Andreasen, NC: DSM and the death of phenomenology in America: an example of unintended consequences. Schizophrenia Bulletin 2007 33: 108-112

2) Wimmer, G A. (2011) Second in Eternity. Austin, Texas: Lithomancy Press

3) Grof, C., & Grof, S. (Eds.). (1989). Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher

4) Viggiano, D. & Krippner, S: International Journal of Transpersonal Studies The Grofs’ Model of Spiritual Emergency in Retrospect: Has it Stood the Test of Time? International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 29(1), 2010, pp. 118-127

5) Lukoff D, cited in Rowan, J. (2005) Ch 3., Wilber and Therapies, in The Transpersonal: Spirituality in Psychotherapy and Counselling, (2nd Edition). Routledge, East Sussex, 2005.

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