Ontological Shock and Psychedelics

What is Ontological Shock?

A famous theologian named Paul Tillich coined the term “ontological shock” in his influential metaphysical treatise Systematic Theology (3 volumes, 1951–1963)In 1994, Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Mack used the phrase to describe psychological disorientation of people reporting encounters with nonhuman intelligences who are not supposed to exist.

Ontological shock generally refers to a deep and unsettling feeling of cognitive dissonance or realisation when your fundamental understanding of reality, existence, or the nature of being is disrupted or challenged.

It is the profound disorientation that occurs when one encounters a concept, experience, or idea that fundamentally contradicts their established beliefs, assumptions, or worldview.

Ontological shock often leads to a period of reflection, reevaluation, and potentially a shift in one’s fundamental understanding or perspective on life and existence.

Similar to the way that victims of abuse, crime and disasters are likely to suffer from psychological shock, pain and extreme stress reactions. If these psychological traumas are not resolved, they may lead to depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder.


Mysticism is known as becoming one with God or source etc, but may refer to any kind of altered state of consciousness which is given a religious or spiritual meaning. 

It may also refer to gaining insight in ultimate or hidden truths, and to human transformation supported by various practices and experiences.

Many Psychedelic studies have provided significant insights into both the neural mechanisms and well as the biological and behavioural consequences of mystical experiences.

The use of the “mysticism framework” (The mysticism framework is used to describe psychedelic experiences and explain the effects of psychedelic therapies within psychedelic science). It is a delicate balance between acknowledging the profound nature of certain psychedelic experiences and avoiding a “black box” mentality that can block scientific investigation. Sanders 2021

Moving Past Mysticism in Psychedelic Science PDF DOWNLOAD Very interesting read!!

The “black box mentality” in regards to mysticism within psychedelic research highlights two main issues:

1. Oversimplification: Labeling diverse and profound experiences as simply “mystical” creates a vague category that hinders deeper understanding and research efforts.

2. Underexplored Potential: Dismissing certain aspects of the psychedelic state as unapproachable by science limits the potential for uncovering important insights and unlocking their therapeutic potential.

Key points to consider:

The limitations of “mysticism”:

  • Imprecise: The term “mysticism” encompasses a wide range of diverse traditions and experiences, making it difficult to define or pin down specific characteristics. This vagueness can hinder rigorous scientific inquiry.
  • Subjective: Mystical experiences are inherently subjective and often defy language, making them challenging to measure or study objectively. This can lead to skepticism and difficulty in replicating research findings.
  • Misconceptions: Stereotypes and misconceptions about mysticism often portray it as irrational or anti-scientific, further fueling resistance to its exploration within a scientific framework.

Alternative approaches:

  • Phenomenological investigation: Focus on the lived experience of the psychedelic state, using detailed qualitative methodologies to capture the richness and complexity of these experiences without resorting to pre-existing categories like “mystical.”
  • Neurobiological research: Explore the physiological and neurological correlates of psychedelic experiences, seeking to understand their underlying mechanisms without reducing them to purely physical processes.
  • Cognitive science: Investigate the cognitive changes and altered states of consciousness induced by psychedelics, using established frameworks and methodologies from cognitive psychology.

It’s important to remember that scientific exploration and mystical traditions can be complementary, not mutually exclusive. By finding common ground and developing innovative approaches, we can navigate the complexities of psychedelic experiences and unlock their full potential for both personal transformation and scientific advancement.

How might this occur after taking psychedelics?

Ontological shock is to change your thoughts and your views of everything that you believe in or think in a complete different way from what you have been taught.

A group of people who may have been taught a certain way would be perhaps religious followers.

For example those of a Christian faith:

Speaking generally they will be taught usually from a young age, that God created the earth and Jesus is the only being who can create miracles… and then they have a profound psychedelic experience in which they connect with source and totally become detached from those former beliefs, question everything they ever read or have been preached to about etc.

Depending on their level of Christianity it could be a mild shock to someone who has been a vicar or minister for most of their life where it could cause a total life changing amount of shock.

Why we need to know about Ontological Shock

This in itself could cause major trauma or Ontological Shock and once back to ‘reality’ so as nurses or facilitators we need to be mindful of this.

The potential suffering related to the experience of Ontological Shock can also be increased by the difficulty in talking about them due to the fear of being considered weird or crazy by relatives or medical staff, so perhaps we should address this with people considering taking psychedelics for whatever their reason?

How can we support people?

Recently, ontology research in the field of health and medical care is mainly used to define and connect diagnosis and medical terms. However, it has been not easy to systematise one information on psychological first aid in emergency rescue, psychology, health science, nursing, and medicine

Therefore, most clinicians have not received specific training in this domain.

Specific psychological care is necessary to help people share these experiences and we need to carefully and sympathetically support, patients when they report such experiences. 

Many patients are convinced that their experience is unique and particularly significant, saying something like: “what happened to me is incredible. I am unique and different!.” 

An initial description of the experience is useful. The aim is to encourage the person toward an “embodied” account of the ontological experience in a state which permits her/his to “re-experience” it from a first-person point of view.

In the right context of a safe and supportive setting with strong social support, clients can often digest and accept these situations and
come out on the other side with positive growth with a full integration session and follow up.

Moving forward:

  • Dialogue and collaboration: Foster open dialogue and collaboration between scientists, mystics, and philosophers to develop a nuanced understanding of these experiences that respects both scientific rigour and the depth and complexity of subjective experience.
  • Methodological innovation: Develop novel research methodologies that are sensitive to the unique features of psychedelic experiences and capable of capturing their full potential without reducing them to pre-existing categories.
  • Respectful language: Avoid simplistic and potentially misleading labels like “mysticism” while embracing nuanced and descriptive language that captures the diversity and richness of these experiences.

By moving beyond the limitations of the “mysticism framework” and exploring alternative approaches, we can deepen our understanding of psychedelic experiences while remaining true to the principles of scientific inquiry. This will allow us to unlock the therapeutic potential of these substances while respecting the profound and transformative nature of the experiences they can facilitate.

Author: PsyNurse

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