Halloween and Paranormal Issues in Counseling

This blog is adapted from an original article that was published in The Illinois Counselor.

Things that go bump in the night. Seeing something out of the corner of your eye. Feeling as if something is behind you. Having a feeling that something is not quite right.

These are things that countless people around the world have experienced. Some attribute these experiences to a sixth sense while others believe that there are sound, scientific explanations for them. Scientists have disagreed for centuries with believers about the causes of paranormal experiences and have designed countless research projects to prove that there is a reasonable explanation for the phenomena. History has shown that experiences that seem bizarre often do, in fact, have a logical explanation. It takes scientists who are not afraid to take risks to examine phenomena that are considered too far from mainstream science to justify academic research. For example, people refused to believe the following now well-known facts prior to gaining scientific proof:

  • Germs on doctors’ hands cause infections to patients.
  • Proteins cause brain damage.
  • The Earth is round and orbits around the sun.

However, there are many things that science cannot yet explain.

Take Cultural Norms into Consideration

Paranormal experiences—unusual experiences that lack scientific explanation—have been reported by varying demographics. Researchers remind us that “the absence of a normal explanation does not justify the presence of a paranormal explanation.”[i] However, for clinicians the question remains: What is the proper approach of a counselor with a client reporting paranormal issues?

Counselors should take cultural norms into consideration and have non-judgmental conversations with clients about their experiences. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5): “Culture refers to systems of knowledge, concepts, rules, and practices that are learned and transmitted across generations.” The Cultural Formation Interview in the DSM5 is a good resource to guide counselors through a semi-structured interview process to help conceptualize issues in a social, cultural, and historical context.

In addition to recommendations within the DSM5, the American Counseling Association (2014) Code of Ethics provides more guidelines when working with clients that can be applied to paranormal issues. Once counselors understand clients’ issues from a well-rounded perspective, they can better assess if the presenting issue should be classified as a mental health problem that could be alleviated with treatment, a culture-bound phenomenon, or a nonharmful event that can be processed in session. It is also within counselors’ role to help clients seek cultural healers when both parties believe that the healers can provide more effective assistance to clients.

Do Not Dismiss Paranormal Activity

Some practitioners dismiss paranormal experiences as delusional, psychotic, or abnormal and fail to provide support to people who experience unexplained phenomena. Many people want to seek help with their experiences but fear being stereotyped and judged. A 2006 study that examined the help-seeking and paranormal beliefs in adults in their 20s to 50s found that 70 percent of the people wanted their belief systems taken into account when seeking help for a serious and non-psychiatric problem. Nearly 80 percent said they believed that counseling is an acceptable way to obtain help; however, nearly half of the people preferred talking with a friend rather than seeking professional counseling.[ii]

While talking with a friend can be helpful, there is a big difference between a friendly chat and professional assistance from a counselor. Professional counselors help people examine their spiritual beliefs and experiences in ways that help them understand these experiences in meaningful ways.

Know Your Client

It is also useful for counselors to know the common characteristics of people who tend to hold paranormal or alternate beliefs. Researchers have noted that many people have used alternative spiritualties to learn about personal and economic growth.[iii] Knowing this can help counselors gain an understanding of belief patterns held by their clients. Many different patterns of belief are held and some replace traditional religious beliefs with more personalized belief systems. A 2003 study[iv] examined paranormal beliefs and found that women were more likely to believe in paranormal occurrences than men, but that men were more likely to believe in UFOs and extraterrestrial visits. The study also found that people from different income and education levels held different paranormal beliefs; people with higher levels of education had stronger beliefs in ESP, psychic healing, and déjà vu, and people with less education were more prone to beliefs in astrology and traditional religious paranormal events.

Another set of researchers pointed out that people do not have to experience a paranormal event in order to believe that such an event is possible.[v] For example, over 50 percent of their participants expressed the belief that death bed visions are possible, and only 1 percent reported actually experiencing a death bed vision. Another factor is proneness to fantasy or daydreaming. People who are more prone to fantasy are also more likely to believe in paranormal phenomenon.[vi] In addition, oppressed and traumatized groups may be prone to paranormal beliefs.[vii]

 The question of pathology is often raised when discussing paranormal beliefs. Not all people who have paranormal beliefs meet criteria for diagnosis; yet, people with depression, dissociation, and ADHD have been associated with paranormal belief systems. In fact, in a 2006 study those with depression were more likely to believe in ghosts; people with ADHD were prone to cryptozoological beliefs, and people with dissociative tendencies were linked to multiple paranormal beliefs.[viii] Researchers point out that belief in paranormal ideas is not indicative of pathology and that social environments and exposure to TV programs about paranormal activities can influence belief.[ix] Other researchers concur and add that family influence can play a role in belief systems.[x] Counselors should pay attention to clients’ overall belief systems and worldviews when exploring these issues.

Counselors work with different types of concerns and are charged with using their skills and training to help people manage different aspects of life. Paranormal beliefs can be linked to a variety of characteristics[xi] and, as long as the client is not at risk of harming self or others, may be considered culturally normal and nonharmful. Developmental progressions including coming of age, grief and loss, death and dying, and existential exploration are all times when paranormal beliefs may arise. Counselors can create well-informed cultural conceptualizations while using the DSM 5 and the ACA (2014) Code of Ethics as guides and provide an atmosphere for clients to process their paranormal ideas when these are important to them.

[i] Moulton, S. T. and Kosslyn, S. M. (2008). “Using Neuroimaging to Resolve the PSI Debate.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(1), 182 – 192.
[ii] Smith, A. F., and Simmonds, J. G. (2006). “Help-Seeking and Paranormal Beliefs in Adherents of Mainstream Religion, Alternative Religion, and No Religion.” Counseling Psychology Quarterly19, 331-341.
[iii] Bartolini, N., Chris, R., MacKain, S., and Pile, S. (2013). “Psychics, Crystals, Candles and Cauldrons: Alternative Spiritualities and the Question of Their Esoteric Economies.” Social and Cultural Geography14(4), 367-388.
[iv] Rice, T. W. (2003). “Believe It or Not: Religious and Other Paranormal Beliefs in the United States.” Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, 42, 95 – 106.
[v] Gow, K. M., Hutchinson, L., and Chant, D. (2009). “Correlations Between Fantasy Proneness, Dissociation, Personality Factors, and Paranormal Beliefs in Experiences of Paranormal and Anomalous Phenomena.” Australian Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 32, 169-191.
[vi] Smith, C. L., Johnson, J. L., & Hathaway, W. (2009). Personality Contributions to Belief in Paranormal Phenomena. Individual Differences Research, 7(2), 85-96.
[vii] Cavalli, A. (2012). “Transgenerational Transmission of Indigestible Facts: From Trauma, Deadly Ghosts and Mental Voids to Meaning-Making Interpretations.” Journal of Analytical Psychology, 57, 597-614.
Lowinsky, N. R. (2011). “History is a Ghost Story: Reflections on South Africa, Collective Trauma, and the Uses of Poetry.” Psychological Perspectives, 54(4), 388-413.
Smith, et al., 2009
[viii] Sharps, M. J., Matthews, J., and Asten, J. (2006). “Cognition and Belief in Paranormal Phenomena: Gestalt/Feature-Intensive Processing Theory and Tendencies Toward ADHD, Depression, and Dissociation.” The Journal of Psychology, 140, 579-590.
[ix] Auton, H. R., Pope, J., Seeger, G. (2003). “It Isn’t That Strange: Paranormal Belief and Personality Traits.” Social Behavior and Personality, 31, 711 – 720.
[x] Sharps, et al. 2006
[xi] Swami, V., Pietschnig, J., Stieger, S., and Voracek, M. (2011). “Alien Psychology: Associations Between Extraterrestrial Beliefs and Paranormal Ideation, Superstitious Beliefs, Schizotypy, and the Big Five Personality Factors.” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25, 647-653.
Image: Spooky Moon by Ray Bodden, used under CC BY