Psychedelics And Spiritual Emergencies
As psychedelics continue to grow in popularity, so too, does society’s understanding of them. Whether it’s using these alternative drugs for mental health issues or other chronic problems, there’s still lots to learn.
The psychologist Stanislav Grof — and his wife Christina — coined the term “spiritual emergence” to refer to a state when an individual experiences a breakdown of meaning, which leads to personal growth and enhanced psycho-spiritual health. The two also came up with the term ‘spiritual emergency’. This refers to a crisis state in which the process of growth brought on by the spiritual emergence becomes overwhelming and unmanageable. As a result, the individual is unable to return to normal day-to-day functioning.
Spiritual experiences can lead to a spiritual emergency (also known as a spiritual crisis). The causes of spiritual experiences can include psychedelics, meditation, yoga, existential crises, near-death experiences, religious ecstasy, and major life events (e.g. the death of a loved one). They can also happen spontaneously.
This article focused on the connection between psychedelics and spiritual emergencies. Spiritual emergencies affect many in the psychedelic community, but often these individuals struggle to understand their experience and how to manage it. By recognizing a spiritual emergency when it arises, and knowing how to take care of yourself, you can find a great deal of meaning and value in the experience.
What Is A Spiritual Emergency?
The Grofs describe a spiritual emergence (not emergency) as follows:
“The movement of an individual to a more expanded way of being that involves enhanced emotional and psychosomatic health, greater freedom of personal choices, and a sense of deeper connection with other people, nature, and the cosmos.”
However, if you have this experience, it can feel intense, as if it’s ‘too much at once’. The result is that you become emotionally overwhelmed. You experience an identity crisis and a drastic change to meaningful aspects of your life (i.e. your purpose, value, goals, attitudes, and beliefs). The signs of a spiritual emergency include the following.
- The feeling of being in a state which is different from how you normally experience the world
- The feeling of things falling apart
- Everyday tasks feel unmanageable
- A lack of motivation
- Feelings of anxiety, fear, and desperation
- Feelings of indescribable love and unity
- High energy, restlessness, and difficulty sleeping
- Heightened sensitivity to both the external and internal world
- Physical sensations, like a feeling of energy or electricity surging through the body
- Impairments to thinking, memory, and decision-making
- Distortions in sense of time and perception of physical space
- Alterations in sense of personal identity, or the loss of it
- Feeling disconnected, alone, and like you don’t belong
- Loss of inhibition (e.g. increased risk-taking and spending money unwisely)
- Decreased social contact with friends and family
The experience of a spiritual emergency can last for days, weeks, or months, and vary in intensity. When you have a spiritual emergency, your experiences and behaviors become extreme. Because of this, it’s hard to adjust to ‘consensus reality’.
The Connection Between Psychedelics and Spiritual Emergencies
Psychedelics are powerful substances. With the right dose, set, and setting, they can facilitate intense, spiritual experiences. These experiences may include the following.
- Ego dissolution (or ‘ego death’): when you lose your sense of personal identity
- The feeling of unity or oneness: seeing everything as interconnected
- The feeling of seeing or understanding ‘ultimate reality’
- Making contact with the ‘divine’ or a ‘higher power’
- The feeling of gaining secret insights and knowledge
You can have this experience in a positive way. The experience can make you return to normal reality with increased happiness, peacefulness, and joy. On the other hand, it can also make the return unsettling. You may carry the experience with you and feel completely alienated and lost in the world.
The Grofs think of a spiritual emergency as having some aspects of psychosis, without indicating a long-term mental illness. Sometimes, having a bad trip can have this quality. These challenging experiences can have knock-on effects, too, impacting your well-being and life even when the drug wears off. The psychological distress continues. In many cases, this distress can take the form of a spiritual emergency, involving the below.
- A loss of meaning
- Strange thoughts
- Feeling disconnected from yourself (depersonalization)
- Feeling disconnected from the world (derealization)
Many Westerners experience these spiritual emergencies following an ayahuasca retreat. However, you can experience a spiritual emergency from other psychedelics, as well, such as using magic mushrooms.
Healing From a Spiritual Emergency After a Psychedelic Experience
If you experience a spiritual emergency following the use of psychedelics, there are three essential things you need to keep in mind. These are set, setting, and integration. Let’s explore these concepts in turn.
This refers to your mindset. When you are experiencing a spiritual emergency, it’s important to try to frame the experience in a way that serves you. This should include realizing that these difficulties will pass and practicing kindness toward yourself. A spiritual emergency deserves self-compassion. It does not reflect anything you’ve done wrong or that there’s anything ‘broken’ about you.
Your distress will ease if you prioritize connection with people who are non-judgmental, supportive, and loving. Ideally, you also want to deal with your spiritual emergency in a peaceful, non-stressful environment.
This involves making sense of your spiritual emergency and using it to your advantage. It can be helpful to speak with a therapist or find a community of people who can provide support. Integration circles (where people share their experiences with psychedelics) or groups like the Spiritual Crisis Network and the International Spiritual Emergence Network can help you find meaning in your challenging experience. By integrating a spiritual emergency, you can not only return to a feeling of ease and normality. One may also gain the following.
- A greater sense of meaning and purpose in life
- A stronger, more secure sense of self
- Humility toward psychedelics and spiritual experiences
- Acceptance of your vulnerability
- Personal growth (as a result of overcoming your psychological distress)
- A feeling of greater wholeness (by realizing and integrating different aspects of yourself)
When going through a spiritual emergency following psychedelics, the most important thing is to reach out to those who can understand you. You don’t want to seek psychological support from a therapist who has no knowledge about psychedelics or spiritual emergencies. For this reason, it can be useful to find a therapist trained in transpersonal psychology, as this is a field of psychology that pays special attention to altered states and spiritual experiences (including spiritual emergencies).
You don’t have to deal with a spiritual emergency on your own. With the right kind of emotional support and guidance, you can reduce your feelings of distress and achieve personal growth at the same time.