Have you ever thought you heard your name being called out, only to find no one there? Did you ever sense a presence in the room when you thought you were alone? Or noticed a meaningful coincidence that seemed so improbable, it made you wonder if it was meant to happen? Maybe you’ve felt yourself floating outside of your body while you were falling asleep. Or perhaps you’ve had another extraordinary experience that was difficult to explain.
Such experiences have been called paranormal, supernatural, transcendent, uncanny, religious, spiritual, or mystical experiences, among others. Psychologists sometimes group these together under the term “anomalous experience,” which connotes the shared characteristic of differing from a person’s ordinary perception of reality. In general, however, anomalous experiences are not uncommon at all; surveys have found that over one-third of the population—including atheists and nonreligious people—will have some kind of anomalous experience in their lifetime.
Despite their prevalence, however, anomalous experiences are usually not spoken about by the people who have them. This is often due to a fear of being viewed as “irrational” or “crazy”—particularly if the experience is not considered normal within one’s group. Such fears likely result from a widespread social stigma which equates anomalous experiences to mental health problems like psychosis or schizophrenia. This view is not accurate. The fact is that anomalous experiences do not, in and of themselves, impact mental health; rather, it is the way in which we respond to them that matters.
According to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), what we think and believe about our experiences has a strong influence on our emotions and behaviours. Certain ways of thinking are more likely to result in emotional distress, such as interpreting an increased heart rate as a sign of an impending heart attack, or interpreting a harm-related intrusive thought as evidence that we must be a violent person. Our mental reactions (or “cognitive appraisals,” in the language of CBT) to anomalous experiences tend to work the same way. Researchers have found, for example, that we are more likely to become distressed if we:
- assume the experience is a sign of mental or physical illness
- judge the experience as socially unacceptable
- think the experience is caused by external forces that intend to harm us
Such appraisals set us up to feel distressed by our anomalous experiences. If we act on them without carefully examining the evidence, they may influence our decision-making and behaviour in unhelpful ways.
In some cases, making sense of anomalous experiences can be exceptionally challenging, particularly when they conflict with our beliefs about reality (for example, when an atheist has an encounter with God). We may become excessively preoccupied with trying to figure out what happened to us, and why. In some cases, this can last for weeks, months, or even longer, and may negatively impact our ability to function in other areas of life.
Another important factor is social support. If our friends and family show interest and acceptance towards our anomalous experiences, we are more likely to feel okay about them. However, if our loved ones react negatively, or if we feel isolated and alone because no one seems to understand, it will probably be much more difficult to cope with stress and uncertainty.
Research indicates that many people view their anomalous experiences as positive, meaningful, and even transformative. However, if you find yourself feeling confused, afraid, stressed, or depressed in relation to one or more anomalous experiences you might have had, then exploring these feelings with a therapist could be helpful. At Forward Thinking Psychological Services, we have therapists with specialized knowledge and training in supporting clients coping with anomalous experiences. We are committed to helping our clients cope with their experiences in healthy and meaningful ways that respect their identity and beliefs.