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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

What to Do in a Spiritual Emergency

by Lorell Frysh, Ph.D. 

Carly called me in a panic. She had been doing a dedicated meditation practice when “out of nowhere” she felt as if her life was falling apart.

Some spiritual practices are specifically designed to evoke an evolutionary leap. And if we’re lucky, consciousness expands gently, life experiences are fluid and mild, and new insights and changes are welcomed and easily integrated into life.

Undergoing a spiritual journey and stripping away the illusions of the ego self can sometimes be the most painfully difficult journey we can take.
But like Carly, more and more people doing spiritual practices experience challenges related to their spiritual growth. These spiritual emergencies are crisis states that can occur during the transformational journey of spiritual development. They happen when inner changes are so rapid and demanding that one finds it difficult to cope with everyday life.

Many spiritual traditions consider this period in one’s spiritual journey holy. In Zen Buddhism, it is called the “The Great Terror.” In Sufism, it is the “Holy Madness.” Plato talked about “the madness that is heaven sent,” and many indigenous cultures see it as a shamanic initiation.

Unfortunately, in our society those who undergo such rapid and intensely difficult spiritual changes are often misdiagnosed as having some form of mental or emotional pathology, and they don’t get the support they need.

A look inside a spiritual emergency

Many people have to encounter their shadow side before they reach a place of freedom and equilibrium. When their spiritual growth is rapid and dramatic, a crisis can arise as their old patterns are bombarded by powerful inner experiences and rapid reality shifts.

Like Carly, people can have difficulty completing the normal tasks of everyday life, feel powerless or ineffective and have floods of internal emotions with elements of apprehension, fear and loneliness. The bombardment of unblocked material from the unconscious can result in feelings of insanity.

Some people experience an addiction to altered states, which can come from a craving to connect with their higher self or God, on the one hand, or a desire to escape, on the other. Some get preoccupied with death, have powerful visions of a daemonic nature or have difficulty distinguishing between the inner visionary world and everyday life. Sometimes people have fearful memories of previously repressed experiences.

Physically, people can experience uncontrollable tremors or painful energies streaming through their bodies.

Due to the abrupt shifting of perception of oneself and the world, people often feel an ambivalence toward the experiences along with a mistrust of the process. They can feel a deep need to be in control or an urgent desire to discuss their experiences without discrimination. During experiences of rich inspiration or imagination, there can also be a dissolution of rationality, and linear thinking can be impossible at times.

What can you do about it?

In order to get the support you need, it’s important to see a trained therapist who can differentiate between spiritual emergencies and psychosis. Medical conditions that might be contributing to the symptoms should also be treated.

To temporarily contain spiritual energy, people should discontinue practices designed to awaken spiritual energies. Some beneficial activities include listening to music that helps express emotional states, practicing simple rituals that enable them to feel connected, changing their diet to include more “grounding” foods, avoiding overstimulating environments and people, and becoming involved in simple, calming activities such as walking in nature.

Body work can play an integral role in the transformational process because it can release blocked emotional and physical energies. Artistic expression can be immensely helpful as it allows the full expression of dynamic forces in the psyche.

Many spiritual traditions recognize this period in one’s spiritual journey and consider it holy.
There might not be anything more complex than the search for Divine simplicity. Undergoing a spiritual journey and stripping away the illusions of the ego Self can sometimes be the most painfully difficult journey we can take. Healthy support and encouragement are imperative as you undertake the beautiful and powerful journey to your True Self.

Lorell Frysh has a Ph.D. in East-West psychology with a focus on spiritual counseling. She is a senior teacher in the Sufi Inayati Order and author of the spiritual novel Jewels in the Net of the Gods. See more at or contact her at [email protected].

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