Experiences with the paranormal: Differentiating between spirituality and psychopathology

by Heather Kranz, MEd, CRC on January 30, 2012 · 5 comments

in spirituality

Have you ever made a wish that came true? Or considered Fate or Providence to be at play when someone or something entered your life at an opportune time? What about dreaming about an event that intriguingly played out in real life? Have you ever mourned the passing of a loved one, only to inexplicably feel their presence?

Most people probably identify with such experiences, and many would assign value or meaning to them—perhaps identifying them as divine intervention, believing in the gift of clairvoyance or feeling a special connection with the spiritual realm. Such experiences can impact an individual’s life by providing reassurance, guidance or a stronger sense of spirituality.

Is it possible that people’s stories about miracles or spiritual encounters are merely symptomatic expressions of something more ominous—a psychiatric illness perhaps? From a diagnostic viewpoint, such experiences may be labeled “magical thinking,” “delusional” or “psychotic.” Could they be chalked up to a diagnostic label? And how do clinicians have the authority to make this determination—especially as they interpret such experiences through their own spiritual (or agnostic) lens?

A matter of perspective

The issue of spirituality versus psychopathology seems to be a matter of perspective. Overvalued ideas about one’s spiritual belief system can be interpreted by others as symptoms of a personality disorder or psychosis. How do we differentiate between healthy spirituality and psychopathology? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) offers some guidance, defining delusional beliefs as beliefs “not ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.” However, with ever-increasing spiritual sects, it can be difficult for the clinician to know what beliefs might be shared. Additionally, the DSM references the level of impairment, context of behavior or belief and symptoms that may be substance-induced. Thus, isolated experiences that are not part of a broad pattern of disturbance should not be diagnosed.

At times a patient’s spiritual beliefs can interfere (from the clinician’s perspective) with their ability to function in a social, occupational or academic setting. These cases can be challenging to filter through the diagnostic decision tree, especially when it seems as though no one can know for sure the extent of truth to any unusual experience.

For example, I met with a patient who had a strong sense that he was “different” from others; he believed he had lived many past lives and had a special connection with the world that most people he encountered could never understand. He described countless “messages from the universe” directing him in his everyday activities. 

From a diagnostic perspective his descriptions bordered on quirky if not impairing. He became quite concerned with physical symptoms, such as feeling like his body was being taken over by an unexplained force, which doctors could not explain. He continually found hidden meanings in TV commercials or friends’ comments that most would consider ordinary experiences. Although he was able to function for the most part independently, he maintained an outlook on the world that made it difficult for him to relate to others and ultimately caused rifts in his relationships.    

SCID platform

The topic of unusual events, or what some define as paranormal or supernatural phenomena, is not typically at the forefront of most clinical discussions between patients and clinicians, in part because they are not of primary concern for patients seeking treatment. However, in my role conducting the Structured Clinical Interview for the DSM Disorders (SCID), I have a platform for discussing them.

In the psychotic symptoms module is a question about unusual religious experiences. Inevitably, patients pause before asking, “What do you mean by unusual?” At this point a dialogue ensues regarding a patient’s personal experience with the supernatural (however they choose to define it) and their interpretation of this experience. The question “Have you ever had visions or seen things others couldn’t see?” sometimes elicits responses about encounters with apparitions of deceased loved ones or patients hearing their name being called or seeing menacing, dark entities. 

In the schizotypal personality disorder module are questions about experiences with the supernatural, unseen forces and unusual perceptional experiences. Interestingly, many patients will disclose personal experiences, such as encountering an animal they believe is the spirit of a deceased relative or describing an ability to predict events that others cannot. Some patients report being guided by entities not of this world—or being protected from near fatal situations by inexplicable forces. Such experiences, while unexplainable, may have a profound impact on their outlook for the future or their belief in forces that transcend our worldly knowledge. 

I am always struck by patients’ initial hesitancy in sharing these extraordinary events; however, I understand discussing them during a diagnostic interview can seem more stigmatizing than normalizing. I find interesting patients’ insistence on presenting their story with the disclaimer,

“This probably means I’m crazy, but….”

It seems as though there is a tendency in the mental health field to dismiss such occurrences as not only strange but indicative of psychiatric illness, implied, in part, by the fact that such questions even exist in the SCID. At times patients decline further elaboration because their experience is deeply personal and meaningful and fear a diagnostic label or quizzical reaction would be demeaning. 

James vs. Freud

The topic of supernatural experiences is nothing new in psychology. In fact, psychologist and philosopher William James wrote about an enormous range of spiritual experiences in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. James believed in an unseen reality and that mystical experiences contributed to a more fulfilling life. Rather than categorizing them as pathological, James sought to include spirituality as a healthy component of psychological functioning. James recounts examples of patients’ mystical encounters in which they felt connected to a higher power through events that ranged from auditory experiences of God talking to them to inexplicable physical energies. 

In contrast to James, Sigmund Freud tended to pathologize religion and religious experiences. In The Future of an Illusion, he depicted religion as a manmade illusion created in an attempt to control human instincts (cannibalism, incest and desire to hurt or kill one another). Freud, an outspoken atheist, likened religious practices to neurosis, claiming that humankind had an obsessive need for protection which could only be achieved through a relationship with a father figure (God). Unlike James, Freud viewed spiritual beliefs and experiences as illusions, in part because they lacked scientific explanation. The opposing viewpoints of James and Freud reflect the significant divergence in clinical perception regarding spiritual experiences that persists to this day. 

So is it psychotic or on the fringe of psychosis to believe in a spiritual connection with a deceased loved one? Should you be diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder if you believe that ordinary things in your life are meant to give you a special message? The answer is a resounding…it depends. Schizotypal personality disorder is diagnosed not on the basis of isolated experiences or quirky beliefs, but rather on a cluster of problematic traits. Psychotic disorders are diagnosed on the basis of a major break with reality and significant impairment in functioning. It is unlikely that science will ever be able to make an absolute distinction between what is symptomatic of psychopathology and what is merely an aspect of diverse human experience. This illustrates the significant influence of cultural considerations on diagnoses and demonstrates that diagnoses cannot be reduced to a science. Ultimately, we must rely on human judgment, which makes my work all the more intriguing.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Tilney December 29, 2012 at 5:23 am

I suffer from Bi-Polar and I seemed to have been pre-disposed to it genetically but it only really manifested itself in my late 30′s after a complete breakdown because of an abusive situation, and too much responsibility. It was a horrendus experience and I ranged from catatonic to hullucinations and everything in between. However with correct medication and psychiatric care I recovered – over an extensive period of time – and finally arrived at a point where I was fully functional again. I made a complete change in the direction of my career, and built up a life for myself with financial security, and able to support my children spychologically and emotionally – two of whom also have been diagnosed with Bi-Polar. This was only because I had made a sensible decision to remove myself from the abusive situation which I was able to do because of cognitive counselling. I have had two more ‘wobbles’ but have essentially remained stable for over 30 years in spite of – sometimes very stressful – situations. I was in a mental hospital or care facility during my illness where I observed many people with ideas about ‘being touched by God’ and similar as what you described. I, in fact had a similar experiences and it pre-empted by inital breakdown as I became part of a charismatic Church where my condition rapidly deteriorated as I was ‘enabled’ to slip further and further into denial of reality and fantasitical ideas. It was my escape from the reality of my abusive relationship. Needless to say with the help of my psyhiatrist I finally had an AHA moment and identified these feelings and ideas with the onset of manic behaviour. Looking back now – with my mind completely rational – I connect the dots between what I saw in the spychiatric wards and my own illness. It took time to connect the dots in spite of the fact that I have studied psychology. Such ‘spiritual’ experiences are often accompanied by doubt and the need to seek confirmation by seeking others who have had similar experiences, feelings of elation, and have a profound effect. I am Agnostic now and although I will not challenge or redicule such experiences or people who experience them – I have on occasion suggested that they should have it analysed or confirmed by a psyhiatrist. Some people did in fact follow up and thanked me as they had been bordering on what I know to be a very frightening experience of being manic. I found the article fascinating and interesting. I combined spychology with communication and did a Masters in Mass Comm, and especially because of my own personal experience I was enriched academically and able to teach University students about the media with a thorough understanding of interpretation of texts etc and the polysemic nature of messages. I am trying to formulate a paper based on psycholical aspects and the interpretation of messages or something like. The ideas are still in the embryo stage and your article is therefore incredibly useful. I am about to retire now and I stay away from church. I am simply vulnerable to that kind of ‘enabling’ and prefer staying rational and together. I hope to read further articles on this subject written by you.

Walker Ogden December 4, 2012 at 10:29 am

Excellent apprasial of these events. Having always had an interest in this arena I seriously considered graduate school in parapsychology under J. B. Rhine at Duke in the 60′s. Does experience or interest in the paranormal make one “crazy”? Having had a supernatural experience, neither solicited nor invited, I have to answer a definitive “NO”!
Keep up the good work.

Joanne February 7, 2012 at 9:55 am

I read your article with interest, I have often wondered about the difference between feeling that you have a spiritual connection and a feeling that you might be going ever so slightly mad or crazy

Up until last year I thought perhaps that the inner voice within me I seemed to have since I was a kid, was a sign of madness, but since I led a reasonably ordinary life, married, kids, career, I just ignored it. It wasn’t like I was hearing voices or anything, there just seemed to be something within me that was “knowing” of things that I shouldn’t really know. So last year I started writing, writing automatically, without any real conciousness and the result has been most interesting.

Maybe I am a fantasist as the previous comment suggests as my writing is an alternative to the reality that I endure in my life. The only thing I do know that what I write is very insightful, beautiful and many people have said that the things I write have helped them understand their own spirituality. So who the heck knows, I think I have stopped worrying where the writing comes from and I just write everything down on http://www.discoveringmylight.com.

I have to say, that I don’t think I do have a psychiatric illness but I can see how in some instances it would be difficult to see a dividing line between the two.

roger verdon February 1, 2012 at 4:56 pm

A really interesting and well-written post. A truly smart and provocative piece.Thank you Heather.

When I was 6-7 years old I saw my grandmother’s image in a mirror a few days after she died. She was a fiery Irish immigrant who only yelled at adults, who quaked as she walked the earth,which endeared her to me. I’m not sure what Freud would say about that experience, but I can imagine. I know how unreasonable that experience sounds, but I cling to it still, not as a fantasy or as an “as if,” but as an actual event in which I participated. Does this feeling sketch me as someone disturbed? I hope not.

I have kept that memory in my head for many years and find it fascinating as well as comforting, perhaps because it offered some connection to the afterlife, actually the only glmpse of the place I have ever experienced. I am aware these are the sorts of observations that get people branded as strange, but we have them anyway. Pilots don’t discuss UFOs for fear of being grounded, yet they see all sorts of unidentified stuff.

Since i don’t fly planes I can admit that I saw a UFO once and watched it for a half hour at least while I waited for a night college class. I was in my car eating dinner and I was convinced this thing in the sky that was getting brighter and brighter was some space anomaly. As it got darker, the light got brighter and I realized the light was from the school behind me reflecting through a window. Had I not figured that out you would be now reading about my “true” UFO experience.

I think spirituality is a corruption of common sense that fulfills some personal need. The more skeptical among us seem to require less spirituality, although we all have our own versions of magical thinking that might be a substitute for spirituality.

These are all worthwhile subjects to ponder. Menninger alums Drs. Glen Gabbard and Stuart Twemlow once co-wrote a book about near-death experiences. That is quite a validation of the subject’s merit.

One of my favorite books is One Hundred Years of Solitude, in which great amounts of magical thinking occurs. I find such stuff refreshing and full of joy. I would love to experience a speaking owl or a man who can change water into wine or be able to decipher those strange clouds, which are nothing more than messages from the universe. They are, aren’t they?

A fantasist enjoys the creative exercise as an alternative to the reality that we generally endure. There are abuses, and for those folks whose fantasies are harmful to themselves, they obviously need help and guidance. The rest of us use fantasy as a coping mechanism. They hurt no one, except one’s reputation when judged an eccentric, a character flaw I feel ought to be embraced and indulged.

Eccentrics simply want to be remembered and perhaps seen once or twice in a mirror after they’ve left this “mortal coil,” a Shakespearian phrase from Hamlet that I’ve never understood but always appreciated. Sort of like the healthy practice of spirituality, fantasy, magical thinking and the like.

Prince Vladimir Leetoff January 30, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Love it.

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