Counseling and Help for People with Unusual Experiences at the Outpatient Clinic (Ambulanz) of the Psychological Institute at the University of Freiburg

Project Leader: Dr. Martina Belz-Merk

Research Associates: Dipl.-Psych. Wolfgang Fach, Dipl.-Psych. Annette Wiedemer

This project is funded by the IGPP and carried in cooperation with outpatient Clinic (Ambulanz) of the Psychological Institute at the University of Freiburg. Its aim is twofold: (1) give advice, counsel and help to people with unusual experiences, and (2) study, implement, evaluate and advance an appropriate concept of therapy and counseling for people with such experiences.

1. Unusual Experiences: Defining the Term

The term "unusual experiences" is meant as a collective term for occurrences which are variously described as psychic, transcendental, supernatural, magical and so forth. Moreover the term includes experiences like poltergeists, the feeling of being influenced by magical forces, telepathy, apparitions, precognition or phenomena which emerge in the context of occultism, spiritism or alternative-esoteric practices.

We prefer to use the term unusual experiences in order to avoid confounding these experiences with aspects of psychological disorders. With this term the special nature of the experience is respected as such without initial prejudice, diagnosis or unjustified labeling.

Unusual experiences can be classified into three general categories depending on the way they were triggered:

Experiences which were neither planned nor intended are categorized as spontaneous. They appear abruptly and with no advanced notice. Some examples would be precognitions and dreams which come true, feelings that inexplicable visual, audible or sensory impressions ("clairvoyance") are temporally coincidence with experiences of major personal importance such as life-threatening circumstances or cases of death in the immediate family ("synchronicity"). Sometimes people are stuck with many personal catastrophes and strokes in a short period of time which might lead them to believe that negative forces, magic or people with supernatural abilities are influencing their lives.

Experiences which are the result of occult, spiritualistic or pseudo-spiritualistic methods or practices are categorized as self-induced. For example, out of curiosity or as substitute for help from their normal environment, a teenager might try occult practices like Ouija-board or table tilting. Also such practices frequently are used to contact the recently deceased with whom there is a close personal tie. People who are intensely involved into such practices increase the risk of becoming dependent on or addicted to these practices and might slowly lose touch with reality.

Externally induced
Unusual experiences might also be induced by participating in workshops, therapy and self-actualization classes and would be classified as externally induced. The techniques used in these classes are often body-oriented, like bioenergetics, biodynamics, primal therapy or focused on changing one's consciousness, like hyperventilation, hypnosis and meditation. Any of these techniques might lead to a radical change of perception and well-being. Through contact with healers, mediums or clairvoyants one might also experience the feeling of being influenced by unknown forces and energies or even of being at someone’s mercy. This feeling might remain long after the sessions are over. Occasionally the person who encounters such experiences finds it difficult to deal with or to integrate them.


2. Requirements for Care

Unusual experiences can occur once or several times and do not necessarily have to be of such a problematic character as to lead to a disorder or a restriction of the person’s everyday life. Different people undergoing such experiences react in different ways to such encounters. Many people are able to cope with their experiences and even view them as positive or acceptable, easily integrating these experiences into their world and self concepts. Others, however, become upset and insecure because due to such encounters. Some even develop deep anxieties or the feeling of losing control over themselves. People with precognition for instance might feel guilty for what happens because they have the feeling that they should have been able to prevent it from occurring. The extend of the agitation people encounter depends on their life history, their actual situation and the duration and frequency of the unusual experiences.

Evidence for the epidemiological spread of unusual experiences can be found in the literature (Palmer, 1979; Haraldsson, 1985 and Greeley, 1991). In a collective summary from representative national surveys taken in Iceland, Sweden, England, Germany and the USA (Haraldsson 1985), about 2/3 of the population have had such experiences. Two-thirds of those interviewed in Iceland and England report seeing apparitions of deceased persons or experiencing poltergeists. The majority of the American population believe in at least one kind of paranormal phenomenon (Sobal & Emmons, 1982). Even when taking cultural differences into account, we assume the data of other European countries would only differ slightly.

All institutions scientifically involved with parapsychological phenomena and border areas of psychology find the need for counseling and therapy for helping people deal with their unusual experiences. These institutions are frequently confronted with requests for information or advice by those encountering such experiences, who seem unable to find adequate help and care in conventional counseling service centers.

The IGPP receives about 800 requests from across Germany every year in the context of unusual experiences. About half of these involve needs going beyond advice; rather they require clinical psychological help like therapy. Exchanges with other international institutions who are involved in anomalous phenomena, like the Koestler Chair in Edinburgh, Scotland, shows that the need for care in the area of unusual experiences is similar.

The demand for help not only concerns those directly affected by such experiences, or their relatives who are looking for help, but also social service professionals. A survey taken in different counseling centers which investigated "occult practices in the teenager population" showed that 79% of the institutions work with teenagers involved in occult practices (Bauer, Lay & Mischo, 1988). Thirty-seven percent of these institutions reported a striking psychological change in these particular teenagers. Seventy-five percent of the counselors reported feeling insufficiently informed to deal with such cases and 94% were interested in informational on this subject. Hence there is a need for help and advice not only for people with unusual experiences, but also for the professionals who are confronted with such experiences in their daily practice.

Currently there are three units located in Freiburg for people with unusual experiences serving the whole country with information about anomalous phenomena and parapsychology: the parapsychological counseling service of the WGFP (Scientific Society for the Advancement of Parapsychology), the IGPP and the outpatient Clinic of the Psychological Institute at the University of Freiburg.

3. Unusual Experiences and Psychological Disorders

There is currently a controversial debate concerning whether unusual experiences are symptoms of a mental disorder, if mental disorders are a consequence of such experiences, or if people with mental disorders are especially susceptible to or even looking for these experiences.

Till recently it was up to psychiatry to deal with unusual experiences and develop clinical concepts. Psychiatrists and psychologists like Jung (1984), Assagioli (1955), Scharfetter (1991), Grof and Grof (1991) and Haraldsson (1985), to name a few, have pointed out several times that such experiences do not necessarily have anything to do with known symptoms of psychiatric disorders. They might appear similar to known disorders, both genetically and prognostically, but they have to be classified in a totally different way and thus treated differently. Proof for this point of view can be seen in the latest version of the DSM IV (Diagnostic and statistic manual for mental diseases) which contains a additional category named "religious and spiritual problems" (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

In Germany it was Hans Bender who early on pointed out the correlation between spiritualistic practices (e.g., tilting tables, Ouija-board, automatic writing or pendulum) and dissociative disorders ("Mediumistic Psychosis," cf. Bender, 1958). A study by Steinfurth (1995) shows that people who report dissociative experiences also often have paranormal convictions. If somebody has an increased disposition for anxiety, it is possible that stressful situations may trigger dissociative reactions. Irwin (1993), confirmed there is a positive correlation between paranormal belief and affinity to dissociation with his results.

The belief in unusual experiences alone, however, does not indicate psychological disorder. A study of Mischo (1996) showed that half of the people with belief in unusual experiences investigated did not show any psychologically striking behavior. The other half though had significant scores on different schizotypal scales.

4. Counseling and Therapeutic Concepts

The current concepts of therapy and counseling for people with unusual experiences are based upon phenomenological ratings, single case studies and clinical expertise. So far studies which ask for detailed documentation and diagnostics as a basis for the therapeutic process of decision making and planning are missing. Moreover the concepts of therapeutic practice are vague and pragmatic. There are only preliminary counseling concepts, whose theoretical foundation and evaluation is yet to come (Hastings, 1983; Kramer, 1993). Even for the clinic-psychological work at the IGPP, carried out since its founding, the development of an explicit concept of counseling has not taken place yet.

Counseling and therapy like that given at the outpatient Clinic of the Psychological Institute at the University of Freiburg is based upon concepts which were developed by other counseling centers and authors (Hastings, 1983; Kramer, 1993) and is been continuously verified and modified in practice (cf. Grawe, 1988; Greenberg, 1986). As a preliminary basis for working with people encountering unusual experiences, such experiences are recognized as real for them and thus are taken seriously along with their subjective models of explanation and perception. Also it is very important to avoid putting any pathological label on these experiences prematurely without a real basis. Some people encountering unusual experiences have already had bad experiences with different medical and psycho-social institutions. Often they have not been taken serious and their reports of what occurred to them lead the listeners to reduce what happened to figments of the imagination, crazy stories and/or symptoms of psychological disorder. This is why such clients are cautious, anxious and suspicious at the beginning of counseling and why we try to build up a positive relationship with them immediately. It is also important for us to remove the dramatic nature of the unusual experiences as an obstacle to integration into the person’s self-concept. Information about parapsychological research clearly gives the client relief. This is why information about the state of scientific research in the area of parapsychology plays an important role in our clinical work. We try to avoid seeing problems only from the parapsychological or the clinical viewpoints, but aspire to observe the synergistic effects of both components.

Along with the individual aims of the client, the main goals of our counseling can be summarized as follows:

  • Determine the extend of stress such unusual experiences cause and define the differences with respect to other disorders like Schizophrenia, Schizotypic Personality Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Dissociative Disorder etc.
  • Reduce the dramatic and mystical nature of unusual experiences through providing information based on scientific research
  • Lower psychological stress by offering help in coping with unusual experiences and helping people integrate such experiences into their self and world concepts
  • Heighten the sense of control over unusual experiences
  • Competent transferal of the clients to appropriate therapy, especially when psychiatric problems are playing a role or the client lives too far away for a personal counseling

5. Project Goals

Along with continuous care for people with unusual experiences, the description, classification and diagnostic subsumption of such experiences is a central aim of the project. On the basis of collected experience and data, structured clinical interviews and additional case analyses, the concept of counseling in this context is to be further developed and evaluated. Our goals can be summarized as follows:

  • Further advancement of the concept of counseling and therapy for people with unusual experiences
  • Accompanying evaluation of the counseling concept
  • Description, classification and diagnostic subsumption of unusual experiences
  • Development of a concept for quality assurance and quality management for the care of people with unusual experiences
  • Integration of parapsychological and clinical work in this context


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Bauer, E., Lay, B. & Mischo, J. (1988). Eine Umfrage bei psychosozialen Beratungsstellen zum Thema "Okkultpraktiken bei Jugendlichen." Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie und Grenzgebiete der Psychologie, 30, 33-56.

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last revision: 29 jan 07