‘Wonder, Intensity, Magic’: Psychosis; an antidote to paranoia and mental distress? by James Walker

I have undergone several episodes of acute psychosis. I have lost touch with reality and started living in a supernatural world where magic, angels, demons and higher powers have circled around me. Some might say that experiencing the world in this way is a clear sign of a ‘malignant disease’,‘illness’ or ‘madness’.

However, in my own experience, the dynamics of psychosis have also allowed for some cleansing, catharsis and relief from other forms of mental distress. I have come to believe that some of the intense elements of psychosis can also have healing properties.

For me, each episode of fully-blown psychosis has followed a long phase (several years) of extreme fear and paranoia–with little end in sight. This paranoia has included fears of strangers trying to do me harm, fear that shouting voices or laughter are aimed at me, fear that there is a conspiracy surrounding me.

These fears have been stubborn, with little hope of a cure. Then psychosis has kicked in – in some sense rescuing me from the torment. Fears that people are conspiring to harm me have ‘flipped’– now supernatural forces are actually conspiring to help me. Where previously I had heard persecuting voices, now I started to hear the voices of guardian angels.

…..not all the consequences of psychosis are negative. Instead, in some cases, psychosis may feed certain internal capabilities of the individual……

……Bill Fulford and Lubomira Radoilska also discuss how psychotic experiences, though significant symptoms of mental disorders, may also be regarded as a basis for problem-solving capacity and positively life enhancing. Glenn Roberts found that people who had lived with delusional beliefs for a long time discovered that their life was very meaningful.

Mari Stenlund The freedom of belief and opinion of people with psychosis: The viewpoint of the capabilities approach

Psychosis and Paranoia

The dividing line between psychosis and paranoia is a fuzzy one – of course paranoia can be seen as a form of psychosis. For me, the difference has come in the division between the material and the supernatural worlds, and the distinction between ‘beliefs’, and ‘illusions’: In my paranoid state I have had distressing beliefs that people were trying to harm me – these beliefs, although remote, were in fact physically possible. Despite being immersed in fear, I could still just about function in the real world. In my fully psychotic state however the extraordinary beliefs were overwhelming, hallucinatory and supernatural, and the illusions frequently fell in the realm of ‘physical impossibility.’ Deep within psychosis it was almost impossible to function – and I needed to be in hospital to stay safe.

Wonder, Intensity, Magic
On each occasion this ‘flip’ from paranoia into psychosis seems, in retrospect, to have come at exactly the right time, and to have had many benign qualities. Like catharsis, after it has finished, the dust has settled and lucidity (sanity?) has returned.  I have typically been much better off than before the psychosis manifested itself. Based on my experience I have come to believe that healing is better served by ‘positive’ mood symptoms (pronoia) rather than negative mood states (paranoia). It seems to me that it is easier to recover sanity and lucidity from beliefs that forces are trying to help you than from forces trying to harm you. This may be because more positive mindsets bring hope and positive energy which can inspire – leading to a greater chance of healing and recovery.

I have titled this article ‘Wonder, Intensity, Magic’ – each of these elements have been features of my psychotic episodes – a child-like wonder at the world; a vivid intensity of experience; and being in tune with magical divine forces. The intensity of these symptoms has frequently overcome, overwhelmed and washed away the distressing elements of previous mental distress.

Psychosis for me has included an experience of innocence, where I have entered a child-like state of sensitivity and vulnerability. Within this innocence I have experienced the wonder of the world afresh – as if seeing leaves blowing in the wind for the very first time.

If persons with psychosis experience more benign hallucinations in some cultural settings than in others, it may well be the case that the voice-hearing experience will be less clinically harmful. Indeed, both Corin and Luhrmann et al place their observations in the context of the more benign trajectory of schizophrenia in India and elsewhere outside of the West.

Frank Larøi Tanya Marie Luhrmann

Magic has come to me in the form of a glow of positive energy surrounding every living thing, every object, every possession – imbued with a glowing sacred spirit.

Intensity has meant a flurry of heightened awareness – overwhelmed by sight, sound, touch and smell – immersed in the vibrancy and beauty of the world.

……When Kapur describes the experiences of psychotic individuals, he seems to suggest that some patients become able to think about and understand the world in a new way. For example, some patients with schizophrenia have said, according to Kapur, that they developed greater awareness or that their brain “awoke,” that they noticed new things or that they could put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Mari Stenlund

The freedom of belief and opinion of people with psychosis: The viewpoint of the capabilities approach

What if psychosis can be seen to have a beneficial, even healing effect? What if this breakdown of sense and sanity has an intrinsic purpose? What if the symptoms of psychosis can rescue your subconscious, rather than damn you?

I am interested in the idea that a long period of mental distress can be ‘eclipsed’ by the onset of full psychosis.

Reflecting on my own experience, I have concluded that fully-blown psychosis may not simply be a ‘malignant disease’ but includes elements that may even have an inner purpose – a healing, and symbolic (archetypal) effect. I have come to believe that psychosis, at some deep level may in fact be the disturbed mind’s own antidote to fear and mental distress.

The work reported here suggests that positively valuing psychotic hallucinations improves the patient’s experience; more work is needed to determine whether this also improves clinical outcome.

Frank Larøi Tanya Marie Luhrmann

How can we work with the constructive elements of psychosis without suffering an extreme and painful breakdown?

My spirit was startled,

My senses were stirred,

With such awe upon me

That I sighed aloud;

Then woke to find nothing

But pillows and quilt,

And lost that Vision

Of Vapour and Cloud

(Li Po)

If it is indeed the case that psychosis can be seen as a state of mind with benign properties, the obvious question seems to be ‘how can we recreate the healing qualities of psychosis, without undergoing the distressing and damaging effects of a fully blown breakdown of sense and sanity?’ For all its benign qualities, losing touch with reality, coupled with compulsory hospitalisation during a psychotic episode is a very traumatic experience.  Is there a way of recreating the wonder, intensity and magic of psychosis without becoming unwell?

This is something which I have been exploring as a lucid person: How can I recreate these healing conditions in everyday life?

There may be at least three ways of approaching this: the wonder of nature, the magic of the new & the fresh, and the intensity of immediacy.

Tuning in to the wonder of nature in everyday life can recreate some of the vividness of psychosis – ‘look how the wind blows these leaves’ – ‘how calming it is to feel the sun on my face as I sit in the shade’. Consciously tuning in on the wonder of nature – trying to experience this as if seeing beauty for the first time – looking with a fresh eye at pleasant surroundings. . . .  I have found all these approaches can lessen the impact of fear and mental distress, without the resort to full psychosis.

The ‘magic of the new – and of the fresh’ can come in many forms – but again it may mean consciously making efforts to seek out and remain in a heightened state of awareness and a vivid mode of perception.  The magic of the new can come with new experiences, new interactions, even new possessions. The magic of the fresh can include looking afresh with a new eye on existing experiences, interactions, relationships or possessions.  The magic of the new can come in the form of a brand-new pair of boots, an unheard piece of music, meeting a kindly stranger for the first time…. With the magic of the fresh comes putting a new shine on surroundings and experiences –  adopting a heightened mode of awareness.

Taking fresh pride in, cherishing, and being surprised by new experiences and even memories can lessen the intensity of fear and mental distress. This approach may be able to draw on the wisdom of Animism, and Shintoism, where every being, every object, every plant is imbued with sacred and holy properties – ‘a kind of magic’. This fresh mindset may go some way towards recreating the more benign (than paranoia) state of ‘pronoia’ – what if the world is conspiring to help me, rather than to harm me?

The ‘magic of the fresh’ can be used to wake up from fear, depression and paranoia:

“Maybe I should go out and buy a new shirt and take a shower and go and look at the ocean or walk in the mountains or make a nice meal or do something to uplift my situation…..”

Pema Chodron, ‘The Wisdom of No Escape’

The magic of the new means introducing new experiences, the magic of the fresh means looking afresh at existing experiences in your life and in your perception. This ‘magic of the new’ has a lot in common with the poet Derek Walcott’s concept of ‘Adamic Vision’ – seeing things as though for the first time in history:

….it is their ‘awe of the numinous, this elemental privilege of naming the new world which annihilates history….’

Walcott’s ‘awe of the numinous’ in the Adamic vision encapsulates the wonder, intensity, and magic which I have been describing – particularly in trying to look at the world with an entirely fresh eye.

Seeking intensity can mean seeking heightened emotions and awareness, and a ‘zest’ of perception through immediacy. When very frightened we may also taste the intensity of the world around us. . .

“A man travelling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!”

         Paul Reps (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1958, pages 22–23).

Recreating the healing intensity of psychosis may mean using our fear to make the surrounding world more vivid and electric.


…..although psychotic disorder may weaken many capabilities of thought and belief, it may also impart some meaningful abilities to the individual

Mari Stenlund

The freedom of belief and opinion of people with psychosis: The viewpoint of the capabilities approach

In conclusion, I believe that the dynamics of psychosis may be seen to have an internal logic – a logic where wonder, intensity and magic can sweep away fear and mental distress. If this is the case, then maybe we need to find fresh and safe ways of experiencing these cathartic properties in everyday life, to find healing and respite from mental distress without undergoing the more damaging symptoms of a fully blown psychotic breakdown.