Mental Illness or Spiritual Emergence?

Interview with Kylie Harris by Joyce Bok  

9th March 2016




About Kylie Harris:

Kylie is a Transpersonal Counselor and Reiki Master. She is currently completing a PhD at the University of New England, where she undertakes seasonal lecturing and tutoring.  She has published peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on topics including: spiritual emergency, mediumship, altered states of consciousness, and shamanism. She has also presented papers on such topics locally and internationally.


Good morning Kylie!  Thank you for taking the time to do this interview!  I think this is a very interesting subject with important implications in identifying and treating mental health.  I believe this concept of ‘Spiritual Emergence’ is not new. Can you explain briefly where the term ‘Spiritual Emergence (SE)’ came from?


Good morning Joyce! Thank you for taking an interest in this topic. As you mention, “spiritual emergence” does have important implications for mental health and general wellbeing.


The concept of “spiritual emergence” is not new and refers to a gradual process of spiritual opening or awakening. While this process may be a little difficult and require some adjustment, it generally occurs in a manner that does not cause major disruption in a person’s life. However, the term “spiritual emergency”, which represents a ‘play on words’ in relation to “spiritual emergence,” is more severe. This term was coined in the 1980’s by Stanislav and Christina Grof, and refers to a process of spiritual emergence, or awakening, that leads to a state of psychological crisis. The Grof’s began to identify these experiences during their clinical work with LSD and individuals experiencing difficulties as a result of an influx of Eastern spiritual practices (such as yoga and meditation) entering the West during the 1960’s.



Is this concept cross-cultural?

 There has not been much empirical research carried out to determine whether the phenomenon is cross-cultural. There is some evidence to indicate that people from different cultures report psychotic-like episodes that involve a spiritual element and that they are able to be successfully resolved in a non-conventional way. For example, there are many reports about individuals from indigenous cultures who experience such an episode and then go on to become shamanic leaders within their community. There is also some evidence to suggest that individuals who have such experiences within indigenous, or non-Western, cultures receive greater understanding and support than those from non-Western cultures. So, while the phenomenon may indeed be cross-cultural, the manner in which it is dealt with appears to differ according to the spiritual practices of the culture.



So what exactly is Spiritual Emergence?

 “Spiritual emergence” may be defined as “a transcendental and transformative process, characterised by one’s conscious awareness expanding or awakening beyond their ordinary state of waking consciousness, facilitating enhanced feelings of peace, connectedness, and other positive psychological and physical health outcomes.” As mentioned, this process usually happens gradually over time, is generally positive and causes minimal disruption to a person’s life.

 However, “spiritual emergency” may be defined as “a process of spiritual emergence that includes a state of psychological crisis, involving perceived trauma and perceived inability to cope.” This occurs when the process happens spontaneously, very rapidly, or in a dramatic fashion. Often the individual does not understand what is happening to them, particularly if they are not involved in a regular spiritual practice. Spiritual emergency, or crisis, may appear similar to psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or a psychotic episode.  



What are the symptoms that people may experience?

 Spiritual emergency is a non-ordinary state of consciousness that may involve intense emotions (these can be up and down like a roller coaster), unusual thoughts, and sensory changes and sensitivities (to bright light or loud noise for example). There may be physical manifestations such as sensations of heat throughout the body, tingling sensations up the spine, feeling as if the body is contracting and/or expanding. Some people may experience visions of symbols or patterns, or apparitions of loved ones or other entities. They may hear voices. Some people report the desire to spontaneously engage in dancing or chanting.

Some of the symptoms are similar to those who suffer from a mental illness.  How can you tell the difference between whether the person is suffering from a mental illness or going through a Spiritual Emergency?

 This is a difficult question and one that does not have a solid answer. There is still much debate about how to tell the difference between spiritual emergency and mental illness, or whether there even is a difference.  According to some, there are some indicators that the experience may be spiritual emergency, including: good pre-episodic functioning, acute onset of symptoms, and a positive exploratory attitude towards the experience. However, this is not fool-proof, as some people find the experience terrifying and do not wish to explore it. On the other hand, there are also people diagnosed as chronic schizophrenic who find their experiences enjoyable. Additionally, there may not be a clear-cut distinction between spiritual emergency and mental illness as an individual may experience both at the same time.

 It is generally suggested that mental health practitioners need to be able to identify different aspects of the person’s experience and be able to help them manage the “illness” aspects, while facilitating exploration of those aspects that may offer positive outcomes. This means that mental health practitioners ideally require knowledge of both spirituality and psychopathology. Unfortunately, this is not often the case.



Would the 'treatment' would be different for those going through a Spiritual Emergency?  If so, what would the treatment be?

It is important to acknowledge that a transpersonal, or spiritual, approach may be more beneficial for one person, while another may benefit more from a traditional medical approach to treatment, even if their experiences are similar. This may depend largely upon the individual’s existing psychological framework and insight into their experience, and whether they wish to explore any spiritual aspects of their experience.  If the practitioner determines that a transpersonal approach is suitable, this may involve anything from talk therapy to art therapy to holotropic breathwork.  Some forms of bodywork may be helpful, such as reiki or rolfing.  However, it may also be necessary for the individual to refrain from all spiritual practices for a while until the severity of their symptoms calm down.


Some advice that has been offered includes: eating unprocessed natural foods, including red meat (which offers grounding qualities), engaging in activities that offer a connection to nature (such as gardening or bush walking), and connecting with friends and family that can offer a sense of “normality.”  Some experts do advise that low doses of medication (such as anti-depressants or anti-psychotics) can be useful if the symptoms are quite severe. However, medication is generally avoided if possible.



Are you able to give a real-life example of someone going through it?  What triggered it, what symptoms and experiences they went through and how they ‘recovered’ or shall we say, adjusted?


I can offer a brief outline of my own experience, which was not as severe as some. However, it was severe enough to spark my interest in this area and drives my desire to help others having similar experiences.


While some of these experiences can be sudden acute, mine was more chronic and spanned a period of about eight to ten years overall. It began during a very intense romantic relationship, which acted as a catalyst for a spiritual awakening. In the beginning I enjoyed this rapid process of spiritual opening, which included episodes of synchronicity (meaningful coincidences), communication with spiritual entities, peak experiences, and feeling that I had somehow “tapped into” some universal knowledge.  However, over time the experience became too intense for me to manage, and I became physically and emotionally burned out. The relationship became destructive as each of us struggled with the intense energy between us, and it eventually ended. During this time, I felt like I was literally dying. This is common during the experience of spiritual emergency. It represents a sense of “ego death” as the person shifts into a heightened state of awareness and lets go of old patterns. However, it can feel like the body is literally dying and this is very frightening. I developed a lot of physical ailments, including an autoimmune disease, glandular fever and adrenal fatigue. My body felt like it was on fire, like it was screaming out in pain. Getting out of bed was a struggle. For a while, physical death seemed preferable to the state I felt that I was “stuck” in.


I engaged in a lot of bodywork and alternative therapies, including acupuncture, naturopathy, kinesiology, osteopathy.  I finally discovered rolfing therapy, which became my savior.  I have also found yoga and hands-on energy work (such as reiki) to be very helpful.   My experiences culminated into an eventual sense of “rebirth” when I decided to shave all my hair off. This seemed to catalyse a final “release” of the residual negative aspects of the experience, and I finally felt like I had let go and integrated my experience.  However, it is important to understand that this process can be cyclical. That is the nature of evolution. That is, an individual may go through many cycles of “death and rebirth” and each cycle may be traumatic. Hopefully, though, with an understanding of the process, each cycle becomes easier. Rather than feeling like we are riding a terrifying roller coaster, we may feel that we are riding a graceful wave instead. 



Do you think it’s important to recognise the difference between Spiritual Emergency and a mental illness? Why?


As I have mentioned, it is very difficult and maybe even impossible to conclusively differentiate between a spiritual emergency and a mental illness. As such, I think it is more important to focus upon the different aspects of a person’s experience and be able to identify those aspects that may offer some opportunity for psychological growth, while managing those aspects that are pathological. I think it is important that practitioners are able to provide this level of understanding so that transpersonal experiences are not pathologised or ignored. There is so much that can be gained from such an experiences, and it is important that people are offered a sense of hope rather than a pessimistic prognosis. There is so much evidence relating to the power of the human mind and what it can achieve. It may be that the difference between spiritual emergency and mental illness is the outcome. That is, those who are able to integrate their experience in a healthy manner have had a spiritual emergency, whereas those who remain stuck in an indefinite state of psychological crisis remain mentally ill.  



What can a person do if they think they are or someone they know is experiencing SE?


I think it is important to reach out and ask for help. If the person feels that they cannot deal with the experience themselves (according to the advice offered above), they should contact a mental health professional like yourself Joyce, who has an understanding of transpersonal phenomena and processes.

Additionally, people can contact the Australian Spiritual Emergence Network, an organisation that offers resources and information for people undergoing these types of experiences:




Can you tell us about your Doctoral research on Spiritual Emergency?


I am currently completing a PhD on the topic of spiritual emergency and how it relates to psychosis and personality. I am working towards clearly defining the phenomenon and developing a questionnaire designed to measure these experiences. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is currently used by mental health professionals to diagnose and treat mental illness, contains some reference to these types of experiences. However, research indicates that practitioners are often not aware of its existence and have difficulty identifying these types of experiences. I hope that the development of a measurement scale can assist in clinical diagnosis and appropriate treatment of spiritual emergency so that people can successfully recover and benefit positively. This questionnaire will also be used in further empirical research to gather current data from real-life experiences so that we can more completely understand this phenomenon, which seems to be occurring more and more frequently in our rapidly developing world.


Anything else you’d like to tell us about SE?


There is no shame associated with experiencing a spiritual emergency, or crisis. In fact, those of us who have had such an experience are in a unique position to share our experience with others and enhance the scientific knowledge of this interesting phenomenon. It is part of a natural cycle of renewal. We are all here in this world to grow and develop, no matter how peaceful or turbulent the ride. Embrace every experience and make it a part of yourself – this is true integration. 



If you believe that you’ve had an SE experience and wish to partake in Kylie’s study, she can be contacted at:




Disclaimer : The articles are of the opinion of the author only unless indicated otherwise. They are not written for individual advice. Please use your own discretion and make your own informed decisions about your situation.