Communicating with regular health care providers or alternative healers about unusual or spiritual experiences. Why (not)?

In recent decades there has been an increasing public awareness of the relevance of spirituality and religiosity to health issues. However, generally it is unclear how to properly address spiritual and religious issues in a (western) health care setting. We know from empirical research that many patients consider it important to discuss existential and spiritual issues during treatment and not only want to focus on medical explanations. But at the same time people don’t want to be pushed into a worldview they may not believe in or they sometimes feel too vulnerable to talk about existential issues and prefer to keep their ‘inner worlds’ private.

The present paper wants to shed some light on people’s motifs to (not) communicate with regular (formal medicine) or alternative, complementary caregivers. Communication itself is in fact about meaning, referring to the sharing of meaning people have created in their minds by their (memories of) experiences, thoughts, feelings. Therefore, studying with whom patients want to communicate and with whom they prefer not to communicate can tell us something about meaning systems and world views people are attracted to or reject and also about their ‘view’ of the meaning systems and worldviews of regular and alternative caregivers.

In this paper I present empirical findings from a particular sample: people who have reported to have had (an) out-of-body experience(s). In an out-of-body experience (OBE) people feel that their ‘self’ or center of awareness, is located outside of the physical body. As we are interested in the attraction or rejection of  ‘formal medicine’ or ‘alternative’ worldviews, OBE’s are interesting to study simply because the nature of out-of-body experiences may challenge prior (religious, scientific or formal medicine) beliefs about the afterlife, body-soul, time, space.

More specifically, in a sample of 407 respondents who had experienced an OBE, we  investigated using close-ended and open-ended questions if, why but also why not respondents talked about their OBE with a regular caregiver (e.g., physician, psychiatrist, psychologist) or alternative healer (e.g., psychic or spiritual healer, pastoral worker). In addition, we tested the following hypotheses (1) The OBE is in particular shared with caregivers/healers (instead of  keeping the experience private or discussing it with friends or family) when respondents experience anxiety or confusion because of the OBE (2) Particularly respondents who self-identify as ‘new spirituals’  talk to alternative/complementary caregivers about their OBE and (3) Respondents who emphasize the physical or medical side of the OBE  share their OBE with regular caregivers whereas respondents who emphasize  the existential or spiritual side share their OBE with alternative caregivers.

Results from statistical (Chi-square) analysis and categorization of qualitative data revealed that our hypotheses were largely confirmed. Generally, the data indicate that ‘regular health care seekers’ looked for information & reassurance whereas ‘alternative health care seekers’ looked for exploration &meaning regarding their OBE. Interestingly, and unexpectedly, respondents who felt anxious and confused talked less to caregivers than respondents with ‘positive’ aftereffects (i.e. respondents who found their OBE interesting or who changed their beliefs about life and death as a result of the OBE).

Inspection of the qualitative data suggests that respondents who felt anxious and confused do not share their experiences with caregivers  because of perceived conflicting worldviews within themselves and between themselves and regular caregivers (e.g., shame/fear for a lack of understanding) or alternative healers (e.g., distrust, other belief system).

In a general discussion alternative explanations of the results are suggested (e.g., whether sharing the OBE may lead to a more positive aftereffects instead of the other way around) and we discuss our findings more broadly in the light of challenges in R/S communication in a multi (ir)religious health care context in general.