Spiritual Bypassing and Dysregulation in the Nervous System

“Spiritual bypassing” is a phrase initially named by psychologist John Welwood in a 1984 paper. Since that time, the phrase has come into fairly common use, and describes the use of spirituality or spiritual techniques to “bypass” or avoid dealing directly with psychological issues such as underlying early attachment challenges, the vicissitudes of relationships, or trauma. If there is activation or dysregulation in the nervous system, one way of attempting to manage this dysregulation may be through spiritual seeking and spiritual practices. However, managing this dysregulation may not be the same as resolving or discharging it, and may prevent the development of what could be considered to be a truly “liberated” spirituality.


Clearly, not everyone with a spiritual practice has nervous system dysregulation. Research in the broad area of the psychology of religion has delineated an “emotional compensation” hypothesis that suggests that for those with insecure attachment, religion or spirituality may serve an affect regulating function, in other words, to help with moderating emotional ups and downs. There is research into the relationship between attachment insecurity and new age spirituality.


The main point of a paper I presented in 2017 titled “Earned Secure Attachment as a Model for a Liberated Spirituality” was that a somatically and attachment-oriented psychotherapy may be one way of arriving at a place of earned secure attachment. If our attachment behavioural system was not secure in early childhood, it is possible to come to earned secure attachment at a later point in life (in contrast with those who have had “continuous” secure attachment). Earned secure attachment may in turn be a platform for a spirituality liberated from serving the function of moderating underlying psychological issues.


While it is challenging to look at the role of spiritual bypass or avoidance in our life, the healing of psychological concerns may well pave the way for spirituality to function as a great healer. Rather than thinking of psychotherapy and spirituality as either/or, an integration of the two may well be a more synergistic combination. In this way, we can perhaps more skilfully navigate our relative being-in-the-world and balance this with an appreciation of the absolute.


Suggested Readings:


  • Welwood, J. (1984). Principles of inner work: Psychological and spiritual. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 16(1), 63-73.
  • Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a psychology of awakening: Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the path of personal and spiritual transformation. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
  • Granqvist, P., Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P.R. (2010). Religion as attachment: Normative processes and individual differences. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 49-59.
  • Masters, R.A. (2010). Spiritual bypassing: When spirituality disconnects us from what really matters. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.
  • Cashwell, C.S., Bentley, D.P., & Yarborough, P. (2007). The only way out is through: The peril of spiritual bypass. Counseling and Values, 51, 139-148.
  • Lumiere, L.M. (2003). Healing trauma in the eternal now. In J. J. Prendergast, P. Fenner, & S. Krystal (Eds.), The sacred mirror: Nondual wisdom and psychotherapy (pp. 249-267). Paragon House, St. Paul, Minnesota.
  • Spira, R. (2016). Presence, Volume 1: The art of peace and happiness. Sahaja Publications, Oxford.
  • Caplan, M. (n.d.). When spirituality becomes a mask. 1-6. Retrieved from huffingtonpost.com/mariana-caplan-phd/spiritual-materialism-the_b_989517.html