On magic and mental health

I’ve struggled with mental health for most of my life. I experienced some childhood difficulties which – in combination with my perception and reaction – caused me trauma. I’ve spent a lot of time working on these issues, both magically and psychologically. I don’t see anyone in the Pagan / Occult community really talking about this (outside of “healing and protection” – more on this later).

Now – I’m not a mental health professional, so please don’t take any of this to be medical advice. If you’re struggling with problematic thoughts, emotions, or behaviors, please find a therapist that you can trust. If you need help, please reach out to a local professional. (Or contact me and I’ll help you find someone who can help.)

With that said, I’ve seen a lot of folks (like me) in the magical/spiritual community who have mental health issues. I’ve had a good long time to observe and think about how magic and mental health interact. I wanted to dig in and really explore these interactions. I think it’s fascinating, possibly helpful, and a long-overdue challenge to some of the taboos about mental health.

(I suspect that many magical and occult practitioners are concerned about the appearance of giving mental health advice. I trust you to pay attention to what I’m saying, exercise some discernment, and keep my disclaimers in mind.)

The status of mental health in American and Pagan cultures

I think it’s helpful, first, to give a rough overview of mental health in the broader culture.

There’s a lot of attention being paid right now to mental health. From suicide helplines, to the response to mass shootings, to the connection between mental health and physical ailments.

But when it comes right down to it, American culture still holds a deep taboo about mental health. Especially in high-stakes jobs such as policing, healthcare, teaching, and infrastructure.

We pay a lot of lip service to mental health. But many people who actually have a mental health issue become radioactive; employers treat them with care, but from a distance, in case it’s contagious (or litigious). Admitting to a mental health issue can result in people losing their job, their housing, and even their social and family relationships.

For many people, the risk is not worth the benefit of seeking treatment.

Even if a person decides to seek professional help, they may be unable to find a provider. There is a drastic shortage of mental health providers in the US. I know of one person who has been on a waiting list to see a psychiatrist for over a year. They are #20 on a waitlist. Apparently, there are that many people in crisis, that there haven’t been any appointments available.

To make matters worse, in American culture identifying something as a mental illness is often used as a way to pass judgment and end a discussion. “We don’t need to talk about gun violence, these people have mental illnesses.” “That cop couldn’t do his job anymore because he had to get therapy.” “Your mother-in-law needs serious help.”

It’s as if labeling someone as having a mental illness puts them in a category. There’s something wrong with them. I am not obligated to continue treating them as a normal person because of it. It’s their responsibilty to get help for themselves.

And none of these attitudes reflect the spectrum of mental illness. A military veteran with PTSD is very different from a person with depression. A person with schizophrenia is different from someone who is cutting themselves. Different individuals have different conditions, which cause them to have different ways of interacting with the people and world around them. Some of these are more or less unhealthy, some are more or less disabling.

(I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that society ignores a lot of the nuance of something like mental health. If I could wave a wand and make society better in one way, it would be making people aware of and respectful of the nuance of things.)

Finding what works

I spent about 20 years doing magic to try to help me with mental and emotional issues.

Maybe I should back up and give some context. I have pretty strong anxiety, which I’ve only had diagnosed and treated in the past few years. What made it hard, was that I was experiencing all these symptoms and challenges, but I didn’t have a name for them. Also, when I was younger I struggled with serious depression, which I sought treatment for at the time. These conditions came about (mostly) from traumatic bullying and a toxic on-again-off-again relationship (which I ended about 20 years ago.)

My anxiety generally feels like I am always under threat from people around me, and from society in general. I often feel powerless to affect my life, my circumstances, or the people who mistreat me. These thoughts in turn cause me to feel depression, as if I am stuck suffering with no hope for relief. I also experience anxiety as if anyone at any moment could decide to turn on me and hurt me.

I know, rationally, that this is not true. But my body responds to certain situations as if they are a threat. My heart rate spikes, my adrenaline surges, and my body starts preparing to take action (freeze/fight/flight). This is probably the most frustrating part. In my mind I know that a situation is not threatening, but my body is still preparing me for a conflict.

I started doing basic energy magic when I was about 15. At 19, I got into Wicca, and I found myself drawn to protective rituals. Some of my reading material – Buckland, Starhawk, Cunningham, Ravenwolf – suggested that I work on self-healing. I knew I was messed up, but I didn’t learn until later just how badly I was messed up. I did most of the exercises from the books, and at the time I found them helpful. They changed how I was feeling – though briefly – and I learned a lot of magical techniques that provided a solid foundation for my life-long spiritual path. Mostly, though, my takeaway was an improved understanding of my inner landscape. Many of the exercises in the books gave me a way to identify and label my thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

In my early 20’s, I would visit a local Pagan shop, Mystic Pathways. It was more New-Age than Pagan, complete with Reiki attunements and singing bowls, but this was before we had easy access to actual Pagan resources on the internet. I made friends with the owner (and in hindsight, might have been a bit of a pest.) One day, she had a vendor selling jewelry made from crystals and other stones. The vendor had an expensive Azurite pendant, which was said to help with fear. I dropped a couple hundred bucks without even thinking about it to get that stone.

At the time I was working as a supervisor in a casino, and part of my job was to introduce myself to customers and get their names. Often, fear rose up so strongly in me that I was paralyzed and unable force myself to talk to people. It felt as if I had iron bands around me, squeezing me and holding me in place. And no matter how hard I psyched myself up, sometimes I could. not. move.

The stone didn’t do dick. I wanted to believe it was helping. I ended up leaving the casino job because anxiety was interfering with my ability to do my job.

My next job was in a call center, working escalations and advanced technical computer issues. Again, the anxiety I experienced was extreme. Though not as paralyzing, I left the job with an irrational fear of answering the phone. I developed a set of habits to address and appease escalations before they … well, escalated. And I kept doing magic.

Here’s a list of all the things I did that did not help:

  • Yoga
  • Opening/clearing chakras
  • Wiccan circles
  • Carrying rocks and crystals
  • St John’s Wort tea
  • Massage therapy
  • Random spiritual touch therapies
  • Meditation
  • Spell-work
  • Astral projection and spirit journeying
  • Karate and Ju-Jitsu

Here are the things I’ve done that have worked:

  • Sleep apnea treatment
  • CBT (Cognitive-Behavior) therapy
  • EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy

What was actually going on

I had an undiagnosed case of sleep apnea until my mid 30’s. I’m not a super heavy dude, so I probably wasn’t an obvious candidate. After a sleep study, I discovered that I stop breathing about 48 times per hour. This triggers a body-level panic response to wake me enough to get a breath. That panic response was keeping my body on high-alert all. the. time.

So I saw a sleep therapist and got a Darth Vader mask to wear at night. It took about a year to get used to wearing the mask., but I noticed an immediate improvement in my sleep and waking alertness. It took about 5 years on the machine to feel like my sleep and dreams were “normal” – at least the way they’re described by people who experience normal sleep.

By treating the body-level panic response, I’ve been able to lower my overall level of freeze/fight/flight response. This in turn makes me less susceptible to interpret everyday situations as triggers.

In addition to sleep apnea, I also had several instances of childhood trauma. I did one round of CBT therapy in my late teens/early twenties to help me manage my depression. I did a second round of CBT therapy in the past few years to deal with the anxiety.

I wouldn’t say I’m “fixed.” I still have the occasional bout of depression, usually related to low-light winter months. I also still experience anxiety. For most of my 20’s and 30’s, I would have described my anxiety as running at a baseline of 6-8 (out of 10), with spikes sending me off the charts. Today, after treatment, I run at a baseline of 2-4 with spikes hitting about 6 or 8.

Here’s the thing. No matter what happened in my life, my genetics and my family culture were always going to result in me experiencing trauma. Even if the specific events I experienced hadn’t happened, there would still be something that triggered a trauma response. What I had to do – what I needed therapy to learn to do – was to challenge and rewrite my interpretations of those experiences.

The limits of perception

When I was first studying magic and Wicca, I had no idea what I was experiencing. I knew about my depression, but I didn’t have a language to describe anxiety, childhood trauma, bullying, etc.

What I did know, however, was that I was always afraid, and I wanted to feel better.

Magic tends to attract people who engage in, well, magical thinking. Magical thinking in the psychological sense – like “If I never wash my socks, I’ll win my baseball games.” It’s easy to see how a spiritual path that involves magic would be attractive to people like me who don’t want to feel bad anymore.

If you’ve been in the magical/occult community for any length of time, you’ve probably been approached by someone who wants a spell to get a lover back. Or to win the lottery. Or to achieve some other instantaneous fairy-tale result. For me, wanting those bad feelings to magically go away was a big early motivator for pursuing magic.

I don’t think that a lot of the people with mental health issues in the Pagan and magical communities are deliberately being obtuse. They probably can’t see what’s going on internally. I mean, I remember what it was like to feel bad and not really understand what was happening internally. And even if someone does know what’s going on, they might not have the language to describe it.

So we have a bunch of damaged people chasing after magical fixes for ailments that they can’t even fully describe. And they find a technique that makes them feel better – usually temporary – and they spread it like gospel. And when the effect of the magic wears off, they go on chasing after the next thing.

I see this largely as an issue of perception. When the only perspective we know is the one we’ve lived with our whole life, it’s hard to get an objective perspective. Having an outsider (like a counselor) that you trust can help you identify what you’re feeling, compare it to a “normal baseline,” and work to change these habits in ways that are healthier.

But if you can’t see it, you can’t change it. And it’s really hard to see it when you’re up to your eyeballs in it.

Magic and spirituality as an intensifier

In my experience, magic and spiritual tech work as an amplifier for our mental and emotional states.

For example, if I’m feeling depressed, doing deep spiritual work can cause me to feel my depression more acutely. Likewise with anxiety – more and deeper spiritual and magical tech will make me more prone to anxiety.

And it’s usually not super obvious that the one leads to the other. It’s more like, doing a spell to banish anxiety might make me feel better for a while. And that spell might be a part of a bigger spiritual practice I’m engaging in, working with chakras or spirits. And overall, all of that spiritual work is putting me closer in touch with my authentic self, which is stuck in anxiety. So overall, that spiritual work is going to amplify my anxiety – even if I think it’s not as bad because I did a spell to make me feel better.

This can be especially true of more complex or serious mental health conditions. If you have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other clinical mental health conditions, doing magic can intensify your experience of those symptoms.

There was a lady in our Pagan group who had some kind of mental illness. We tried to be friends with her, but it just didn’t work out. Toward the end of our interactions with her, she was claiming that sex demons were trying to attack her, and she needed help with an exorcism. (We refused. We suggested she speak to a professional.) Later, we learned about horrific abuse that she had experienced (and facilitated) between herself, her ex-husband, and her daughter.

So, probably not sex demons.

(If I had to guess – and again, I’m not a psychologist so take this with a grain of salt – I would say that going into enhanced spiritual states, while experiencing mental health issues, while participating in a narrative in which magic is real, caused her to experience a distressing amplification of her underlying issues. The human mind is wired to be social, and to recognize and interact with other humans. It seems reasonable that animism works through the interactions of this biological system, treating non-humans as if they are humans with personalities. It also seems reasonable that an extremely distressing internal experience could hijack this system and manifest as the perception of a malicious human-like personality.)

Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do magically and spiritually – especially during a crisis – is to pause your magical practice and let things cool off a bit.

And stay on any treatment plan your healthcare provider has prescribed for you.

Especially medications.

But also counseling sessions.

And if any of this sounds familiar, like it’s something you’ve experienced, you may want to believe it’s magical, but I strongly suggest you find a Pagan-friendly therapist with whom you can talk these things out.

Misdiagnosing spiritual conditions

I believe that there are certain spiritual experiences which can be mistaken for mental illness.

Again, I’m not a trained mental health practitioner, so I may just be talking out my ass here.

I think there’s a lot of gray area here. The same experience in different contexts could be interpreted in different ways. For example, let’s take a basic case of telepathy – I might receive information directly from another person’s brain.

If I were in a church, that might be seen as a Spiritual Gift. Another church might label it as a Trick of the Devil. A psychologist might describe it as self-delusion or happy coincidence. A psychiatrist in a mental hospital might describe it as a serious condition requiring medication.

And certainly, there are certain mental illnesses which can cause spiritual-like experiences. Visual or auditory hallucinations come to mind.

And there are also very real spiritual experiences which can look like mental illness. Talking to spirits and ancestors, for one. Conversations with trees and rocks are another. Believing that you are under psychic attack, another.

To me, there seem to be a few factors that influence how a spiritual experience lands for us. The first is the narrative/belief context in which the experience takes place. This includes our spiritual/religious path as well as the story we tell about what the experience means. The second factor is our response to it – is the experience reassuring, or troubling? A third factor is our agency. Did we go looking to have the experience, or is it happening whether we like it or not?

Healing and protection

My wife and I ran a Pagan group and a Pagan shop for several years, and we have an inside joke that whenever someone doesn’t know the actual properties of a stone or herb, it’s always “healing and protection.”

Because everyone in the magical community wants healing or protection.

And claiming something is for healing or protection is an easy way to bullshit someone to make a sale.

When I was experiencing distressing psychological issues, I didn’t really know what I needed to be healed or protected from. I just knew that I was always afraid of things, and it was interfering with my ability to do the things I wanted to do. And now I have a $200 Azurite pendant sitting in a drawer somewhere.

I think it’s easy to be in that space and think, “If only I was healed from that trauma I experienced, I’d be able to function normally,” or “If only I were protected from the harm I anticipate, I could do the things I want.”

These are normal feelings. And I think it’s normal for humans to turn to our spiritual beliefs for relief. It’s especially tempting to think that if we just find the right god or spell, it will “fix” us.

And it’s a lie.

There is no magic spell that can undo the things (or the effects of things) that have happened to us. I know. I’ve looked.

The way out is through. Grief is your friend – don’t fight it. So is resilience. You can build resilience by choosing the pain. It’s also helpful to have a “home base” where you feel safe. Which probably won’t make sense till you’re on the other side of dealing with trauma.

I’m not sure I have good words for this. If it’s resonating for you, maybe bring it to a professional that you trust. Or you can shoot me an email, and maybe we can discuss.

The fraud angle

I don’t want to go too in-depth to psychic fraud here. But I think it’s worth mentioning that when a person comes looking for healing and protection, there are plenty of vendors out there who will sell them healing and protection.

Whether or not it actually works.

Part of me wants to advocate for some kind of registry or certification so that buyers know whether a magic practitioner is authentic or not.

But the more I think about it, the more I think magic needs that ambiguity. Psychic readings don’t work unless they might be fraudulent. It strikes me as the same sort of sentiment as when you say to someone “Hey, this might be nothing, but…”

It might be nothing. Or it might be something.

So be aware that there are people out there who will absolutely exploit a vulnerable emotional or psychological situation for profit. Resilience, discernment, and the Valuable Learning Experience™ of getting burned are your allies on this front.

A few reflections on my process

In hindsight, I can see how critical it was that I establish a “home base” where I feel a deep sense of safety and security. Without that, I would not have been able to give myself permission to express troubling thoughts, beliefs, and feelings – let alone challenge them. Note that this may not actually be your home, especially if you have distressing emotional associations with home.

(I’ve mentioned this “safe space” thing a few times. I cannot express how important this is. A good part of my mental health problems stemmed from not having any place where I felt safe. Even when the people around me tried to create a “home base,” it could not override my life experiences screaming at me that I still needed to be “on guard.” This sense of feeling unsafe in all situations prevented me from being able to progress in any other way on my mental health.)

I don’t think therapy alone would have helped. Without addressing the underlying physiological problems with my sleep, my body would not have been able to calm down from the freeze/fight/flight response enough to make changes.

Likewise, just getting a Darth Vader mask wouldn’t have worked, because I had a lot of subconscious feelings of threat associated with everyday situations. Better sleep doesn’t fix an irrational fear of answering the phone – I had to work with a professional to challenge the meaning associated with a phone, and rewrite those associated meanings.

And, none of this happened in isolation. I was still living my life, which included magical and spiritual practices.

The karate angle

I’ve done martial arts for most of my life. (Ye gods, 30+ years now that I’m counting. Gawds I’m old.) I don’t really feel like myself without a regular martial arts practice. The times I’ve gone without practicing are some of the darkest in my life.

One thing that martial arts does is gets me moving. And not just moving. I’m moving in relation and interaction with other humans. And I’m trying to perfect a sequence of moves, which functions as a puzzle – how does this particular move work out to a self-defense application?

So karate is physical exercise, which is proven to help alleviate anxiety and depression. It’s also mentally stimulating, which gives me something to think about that isn’t all the shit that’s wrong with my life. And it’s taking place in a social situation, getting me to interact with other humans without it being awkward. That’s three major causes of mental illness that are addressed with a single practice.

Recently, I switched styles. In part because of availability, in part because the old school disintegrated. In my new school, we emphasize body conditioning in addition to kata forms and defense applications.

Body conditioning includes calisthenics and props to improve strength and flexibility. We literally have heavy jars we lift, and buckets of sand we punch, just like in the old kung-fu movies. Growing stronger has helped me realize that I can affect the world around me. I can heft heavy boxes, turn a heavy steel pipe wrench, and I can run up and down stairs without collapsing trying to breathe.

Growing more flexible has shown me that there are better postures for going through life. Sure it takes effort to sit with a straight back, or to lift with my legs instead of my back. But with better posture, I can move more effectively using a lot less effort.

My karate practice also includes Iron Body conditioning, where we pound on different parts of each others’ bodies to toughen them up. For example, we’ll pair up and smack our forearms together. The more we do it, the harder we can go, and the less it bothers us when we do it.

I feel like my most significant mental health gains have been through Iron Body work. If you’ve never done it, you might wonder at the wisdom of inflicting pain on practice partners – or having pain inflicted upon you. My experience is that, with practice, contact with a partner hurts less. And even when it hurts, it doesn’t bother me as much. This is exceedingly useful from a self-defense perspective – if blocking a punch hurts as bad as getting punched, what’s the point? If you shut down from the pain of blocking, how is that more helpful than shutting down from the pain of getting hit in the face? Better to condition yourself in the safety of the dojo at your own pace, and build up your tolerance to pain.

In addition to having stuff physically hurt less, I’ve started to realize that pain and adversity don’t always have to be a big deal. If I miss a block and get punched in the stomach, it’s not the end of the world. If I have to block hard it might hurt my arm-bones, but it goes away after a while.

It’s not hard to make the leap between something physically hurting (and not being a big deal) and something emotionally hurting (and not being a big deal).

So for me, Iron Body conditioning functions as a metaphor for the suffering in life.

The key to whether I find something to be conditioning or traumatic is … agency. If I choose it, and I have control over how hard/soft I practice, then it’s conditioning. If someone else is deciding that for me, it’s more likely to come across as traumatic. Another factor is experience. If this is the fortieth time I’ve experienced pain in my arms, it’s unlikely to trigger a trauma response. If it’s the first or second time, I’m more likely to experience it as traumatic.

The spiritual angle

As I said, my therapy didn’t happen in a vacuum. I have a deep, long-term spiritual practice that includes meditation, magic, and Earth-based spiritual practices.

And, you may recall me saying that magic didn’t do dick for my mental health.

That’s … not entirely true.

(I hesitate to include this section out of concern for people who will read it and say “Hah! See, magic does work for mental health!” Ultimately, I trust that you are intelligent and discerning.)

The important question is “How does magic influence mental health?” And it’s a lot more complex than it may seem.

I’ve never had a spell work to stop me from feeling anxiety. (Or depression.) No stone removed my anxiety, and there wasn’t any deity I spoke to who could extract problematic feelings. Energy work had an effect, which I’ll get into later. Same with breath work. Meditation also had an effect, but again maybe not the way you might imagine.

No matter what I did magically, the anxiety always came back. Here’s my take on how different magical practices played out.

Spell Work

None of the spells that I did to alleviate anxiety or depression really worked. Full stop. There was never a spell that I did to “remove anxiety” or “remove depression” that actually did what I intended.

The spells that did work were ones that were clearing crossed conditions and road opening.

Clearing crossed conditions helped alleviate some of the secondary effects of anxiety, making it easier to challenge and let go of problematic beliefs. For example – after a spell to clear crossed conditions, I felt more free and less restrained, and I was able to make decisions without anxiety being a major factor. The spell might give me an excuse to go to the hardware store, and while I’m there I can ask to have a board cut. I still experience anxiety asking for help, but I can function without it shutting me down.

Road opening helped open a path for helpful influences to come to me. Like finding a good therapist. Road opening is weird in the way it interacted with mental health. Sometimes, it would manifest something in a way that completely bypassed a triggering situation. This might look like getting a phone call from a client that I’ve been putting off calling. But sometimes, it looks like getting an opportunity to land a new client – I just have to make a phone call before I overthink it and trigger a panic attack. Sometimes it looks like a job I have to get done, no matter how I feel about it; one month I choose to let it stress me out for a couple weeks before I do it, and the next month I just get it over and done with sooner.

I would not discount the effect of uncrossing and road opening. Road opening helped me find a foothold therapist to get me by, then find a better therapist, then apply lessons from karate to mental health. Uncrossing helped get me through situations where I feel the anxiety without it shutting me down.

But to just wave my wand and say “Anxiety I Bid Thee Be Gone!” – nope.


None of the rocks I carried with me did squat. I’m not really a rock person, though. I think they’re pretty, and they can be inspirational, but I think their influence is marginal at best.

When I wore my Anti-Fear Azurite pendant, I would feel better as long as I remembered I was wearing it. When I forgot about it (which tends to happen when freeze/fight/flight is triggered) it did nothing.

Which suggests to me that the effect was mostly in my head. The stone was a reminder to feel less fear, and it worked as long as I was thinking about it. It had no intrinsic power over my mental health.


St. John’s Wort has a mild effect at alleviating symptoms of depression. Valerian root tea has chemicals related to benzodiazapenes, and I found it to have a mild calming effect on anxiety. Neither made the anxiety/depression go away. It’s more like they blunted it a little.

Sometimes I’d drink the teas before going about my day. Their effect was a bit like bailing the Titanic with a paint bucket.

I will say that herbs have actual proven chemical effects on human physiology. As such, they are less prone to being bullshit snake-oil remedies. There is actually a physiological effect from certain herbs.

Also as such, they can have interactions with other drugs. You should talk with your doctor about any drug interactions or side effects. You should also be aware of dosing, which can be complicated. (Calculating dosage means knowing how much of the active ingredient is in your herbs, then calculating that against your body weight. So not just math, but also a guess at how potent the plant is.)

And beware of misinformation. Some people will tell you whatever it takes to get you to buy their shit – true or not. For herbalism, I suggest cross-referencing at least 3 sources, one of which is a credible botanical field guide.

Shielding / protective work

I did find shielding to be fairly helpful for anxiety. Putting up a strong enough shield created a stronger filter on the psychic noise and influence from other people. This caused me to feel fewer triggering thoughts/emotions/communications intruding on my consciousness. I found myself less triggered by the presence of other people with a strong shield up.

So it helped. Kind of. But having a super hard shield up all the time isolated me, which made it hard to connect and interact with other people. It also reinforced my beliefs that other people were a threat, which over the long term made me more anxious. Finally, keeping a hard shield up all the time was exhausting, and wasn’t something I could really keep up all the time.

Part of the benefit from shielding/protective work is in creating a feeling of safety and security. However, if you’re frequently having feelings of being unsafe, I strongly recommend checking in with a therapist. They can help you evaluate whether you are, in fact, in a situation that isn’t safe. If not, they can help you reset your beliefs about common situations you’re in so that you can feel more safe. Most importantly, a therapist can help you deal with the bodily and non-conscious spaces where those feelings live.

And a therapist can help you identify if you are in a situation that’s not safe. And help you develop a plan and techniques to deal with it and get into a situation that is safe.

I tend to think I can do everything myself. I think I can use my will to be aware of and influence all parts of myself. This is not realistic. A therapist is paid to be your confidante, and to give you a helpful perspective on difficult aspects of your self. A lot of the time, we’re too close to a problem or we’re too deep into our own perspective to be able to get a clear, accurate picture of what’s going on. And having a therapist help (as opposed to a friend), is that a) it doesn’t risk the friendship, and b) you can trust that the therapist is paid to advocate for your best interests.

(Usually. There are some bad therapists out there. You may need to try one or two before you find one you really connect with.)

Energy work

So, this is kind of a weird topic. Not because energy work is weird, but rather that the way energy work interacts with mental health is kind of weird.

Clearing chakras helped me feel better, and helped energy flow better through my body. And I’ve definitely experienced situations where I had a traumatic memory that felt “stuck,” and energy work helped “unstick” it and allow it to move.

Energy work provides a felt sense of how thoughts and emotions can “move” in the body. In this way, it gives a metaphor for the CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) or EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing) processes. These techniques cause problematic emotions and thoughts to “move.” The thinking goes that if we can “work” a troubling idea until it starts to “move,” then that can allow it to be “flushed out.”

I haven’t ever had energy work prevent or stop anxiety or depression. But I have had it facilitate those feelings moving through my body, and thereby become less intense.

So all that stuff about “clearing chakras” – I’ve found it to be bullshit. And simply opening channels doesn’t necessarily “fix” your emotional problems. More like, it’s a technique that can help therapeutic techniques work better.

Note: I’m using “scare quotes” as a way to describe my sense of how these things work. I don’t have any way to actually measure them, nor do I have more accurate words to describe what they are or how they work.

Breath work

I’ve done a lot of breath work without realizing I was doing breath work. And there’s a lot of interesting data coming out of the neuroscientific research into breathing. Here are some techniques that I’ve found helpful in dealing with intense problematic emotions.

Helpful breath technique 1: Relax your shoulders and chest, and allow your breath to expand only your belly. Keep breathing that way for a few minutes.

Helpful breathing technique 2: As you’re breathing, constrict the back of your throat so that the air moving past it makes a sound similar to ocean waves flowing in and out from the shore. The constriction should slow your breathing and create a bit of pressure.

Helpful breathing technique 3: Inhale and visualize energy flowing up from the earth into your heart, as if you have roots pulling the energy up. Exhale and allow the energy to flow upwards and connect with the sky, as if it’s flowing up and out from branches. Then inhale energy down from the sky through the branches into your heart, and exhale the energy down through the roots back into the earth. Keep doing that for a few minutes.

I can’t really say how (or if) these techniques will work for you. When you’re feeling difficult things, give them a try and see what happens. I will say that deep breathing helps stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system. This in turn helps to shift focus away from the sympathetic nervous system that’s causing a freeze/fight/flight response.


Meditation helped me get an understanding of how my brain works. It doesn’t make anxiety or depression go away. In fact, sometimes meditation brings troubling feelings front and center.

Rather, meditation is more about learning my habits of thought and emotional responses. Sort of like developing a map of my inner landscape. Here are some techniques that have helped.

Empty-mind meditation is hard for me, but practicing it helps me learn to let go of distracting thoughts. This is especially helpful for triggers – being able to let go of a mental distraction is very similar to letting go of a situation that triggers anxiety. In this practice, I sit in a quiet place and relax. When I have a thought or emotion come up, I notice it and let it drift away. Before long, the thoughts and emotions get less frequent, and eventually stop popping up.

Self-observation meditation, where I mentally take a step back and look at myself as if I’m an outside observer, helps me be more aware of my thoughts, emotions, sensations, and actions. It gives me a limited ability to see my thoughts, feelings, and actions through a different lens. Having a different perspective allows me to more easily challenge a belief. If I only have the one perspective I’m immersed in, it can be difficult for me to let go of it, because it feels familiar and right. With access to a second perspective, it becomes easier to challenge and adjust a belief. (Sort of like walking a mile in someone’s shoes.)

Focused meditation, where I put my focus on a thing (like breath or a statue) doesn’t really work for me. I’m just not that interested in the technique, and I haven’t seen the value. Also it’s hard. It’s possible I have some kind of undiagnosed attention disorder that makes focusing on a boring thing difficult, so your mileage may vary.

Sometimes while meditating I’ll become very distressed, jittery, or obsessed with a particular thought. I would never say that meditation would be a fix for mental illness. In fact, because it all takes place within our consciousness, it’s subject to the same non-conscious biases that are causing us to have mental health issues in the first place.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t have value. There are many times where meditation will spark a thought, which will grow during the day, and become a full topic for therapy, which in turn recontextualizes a problematic belief.

And if nothing else, sitting in quiet calmness has its own benefits for dealing with distressing situations.

Deity work

I’ve had plenty of experiences that I would attribute to non-physical entities with an enhanced range of agency. (aka, spirits and deities.)

None of them have made the anxiety go away.

But I have found that a regular (daily) devotional practice can serve as an anchor. A regular spiritual practice creates a sort of “bright star” that’s always in the same place. This allows me to orient myself accordingly. If the deity looks like it’s in a weird place (or is acting in a weird way, or giving me weird messages), I start to realize that it’s not the deity that’s gone wonky – it’s me. I come to understand the nature of the deity, and if I’m feeling a certain kind of way, I can re-orient myself based on my relation to that “bright star.”

A regular devotional practice can also act as a handrail. If I start to feel like I’m mentally or emotionally wobbling, I can connect to that regular practice and feel like I “steady myself.” The practice itself can become so familiar that it’s soothing – especially repetitive tasks like repeating mantras and counting mala beads. Alternately, techniques like casting a circle can help me feel reconnected to earth, and separated from the things I find stressful.

I have cast circles in hospitals when loved ones have died, and found it quite comforting. Is it the familiarity of the ritual? The magical effect of the circle? The connection to universal power sources?

Who knows? But it did have an effect, so I thought it worth mentioning.


Divination can show the way toward better mental health.

My experience, though, is that we read our divination through the lens of our mental health. That makes it really easy to get off-track. Especially if we’re not aware of our biases.

There is also the tendency for us to read divinations to be saying what we want to hear.

If you struggle with mental health, I strongly suggest that you confirm your divinations with real-world evidence before acting on their advice. I would also strongly suggest that you calibrate your divinations: do some divinations with another person, and see how their reading is different from yours. Or, perform a divination on your question, then wait a day or two and repeat it to see how the answer shifts. Or get a divination from someone else on the same topic.

Divination can be a really helpful tool. But when it’s combined with bias from mental illness, it’s really easy to go down an unhelpful trajectory.

Magic in general

Practicing magic in general tends to intensify the other stuff in your life. I think we pay closer attention to detail when we’re doing magic, and this brings us into a more intense interaction with life.

When doing magic, it’s also easy to fall into the trap of self-delusion. We might imagine that we’re a Warrior of Light, sent to do Glorious Battle with the Minions of Evil. Or we might imagine that we’re a Conduit for the Dead, and we’ve been called to transmit messages from Beyond the Veil.

Sometimes practicing magic can bring us closer to our triggers, which can cause our depression and and anxiety to get worse.

And there are mental illnesses which cause hallucinations or breaks with reality, which can definitely get worse if you’re dealing with things that may-or-may-not-be-true. Like sex demons. (If you suffer from those, be extra vigilant.)

I’m not here to say do magic for your mental illness or don’t.

But in my case, I can’t get past the fact that a few years of therapy and a CPAP machine did more for my anxiety than 22 years of magic and spiritual practices.

The trap of self-delusion

As magicians, we take a more active role in creating the reality we want to live in.

For some of us, that might mean business magic to drive 6- to 7-figure income.

For some of us, that might mean aligning ourselves with nature, our ancestors, and the deepest parts of ourselves.

For some of us, it might mean developing a sense of power and agency in a world that tries to rob us of both.

For some of us, it might mean living in a world with elves, vampires, dragons, and fairies.

Also as magicians, we are prone to self-delusion. Our minds are highly creative, and we can find ourselves believing our own bullshit. (Or a fantasy that we find safer and more interesting/comforting than reality.)

I find it helpful to regularly take a break from doing magic and spiritual practices. I’ll ground out into things I can directly experience. Like cooking or baking. Walking in nature. Doing a physical sport. (Not digital activities. Video games and other simulations are not helpful for grounding into reality.)

In terms of mental health, grounding also means distilling our inferences from our actual perceptions. In other words, figuring out what’s the actual thing, and what’s the meaning or implication we’re layering on top of it. For me, that might look like my phone ringing, and I take a moment and describe physically what is happening. That in turn helps me notice the things I’m inferring – such as thinking it might be someone mad at me, or it might be a pushy sales person. Once we can separate the secondary inferences from the physical thing, we can work to challenge those beliefs.

My phone doesn’t have any anxiety inside of it that projects when it rings. The anxiety happens in me, and my response to the phone ringing. Without me, there wouldn’t be any anxiety in the situation. Thus, the anxiety is a delusion – I am deceiving myself into thinking that a ringing phone is a threat, when in fact it is just a piece of plastic and glass making noise.

As magicians, we get to create the world we want to live in. Which also means that some of the stuff we create is delusional. The antidote, I think, is regularly checking in with reality and the culture you find yourself living in.

Final thoughts

Some folks I know are going through a tough time with mental health issues lately. And I know that mental/emotional health issues are pretty common in the pagan/occult community. My hope is that this essay has a few helpful tips and perspectives.

The main takeaway is this: while magic does have an influence, it’s probably not the influence you’re expecting. And magic’s influence is subtle; you’ll get more bang for your buck working with a professional than with your invisible friends.

And it’s easy to get sideways if you lean on magic too hard for your mental health.

Thoughts? Shoot me an email at dmkoffer at gmail dot com.