What Kinds of Support Do Near-Death Experiencers Need?
By Marieta Pehlivanova, PhD
Marieta Pehlivanova, PhD, is a junior researcher at the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. Dr. Pehlivanova’s work at the Division focuses on near-death experiences, children reporting past-life memories, as well as other unusual experiences. Marieta holds a PhD in Experimental Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor’s degree in Statistics from American University. Prior to her academic work, she pursued a career as a statistician in medical research. In addition to her academic work in human consciousness phenomena, Marieta is also personally interested in the exploration of consciousness. You may contact Marieta at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about the study outlined in this article or any future research opportunities. If mental health professionals would like to participate in the current research, please click here.
When I first got involved in academic NDE or near-death experience research back in 2017, I was excited to dive into decades’ worth of published research literature on the phenomenon. I am not an experiencer myself, but I had developed a strong interest in NDEs and related spiritual experiences. I had read many fascinating experiencer accounts, including several popular books, but not much in the way of academic research.
One of the initial things that struck me as I read more, aside from the impressive amount of studies and articles produced over the past 40 years, and sadly ignored by many, was that there wasn’t much research on how to actually help experiencers deal with this potentially life-transforming experience in its immediate aftermath. Many of the issues that researchers had looked into were of scientific importance, such as what happens during an NDE, its typical elements, and different types of NDEs; who has these experiences and under what circumstances; how do NDEs affect experiencers long-term; and what do NDEs tell us about the mind and brain relationship.
But practical issues such as how to deal with the difficulties that one may encounter after an NDE haven’t received much attention from researchers, with the exception of a few papers offering guidelines to mental health professionals who may come across NDErs. The NDE literature and popular culture have focused on positive aftereffects of the experience, such as greatly increased compassion, spirituality, and appreciation of life, among others, but have neglected the emotional and interpersonal difficulties that can arise after an NDE.
Experiencers often find it difficult to talk about their NDE with medical professionals or loved ones, for fear of rejection, ridicule, or being labeled mentally ill. Friends and family may not be able to accept or adapt to experiencers’ changing values and interests. At the same time, specialized professional help is limited by the scarcity of counselors, therapists, or health professionals familiar with NDEs.
NDErs are extremely motivated and helpful as research participants and I thought it was important to give back to that community by investigating issues of immediate practical importance to them. In addition, it was important to hear in their own words about the difficulties they faced and, crucially, what was helpful to them in overcoming these difficulties and what got in the way. From this desire to give back originated the idea of doing a formal quantitative study with NDErs asking them directly about these topics, which Dr. Bruce Greyson and I have been pursuing for the past year.
The study is ongoing and consists of an extensive online survey asking about experiencers’ backgrounds, the content of their NDEs, in their own words, and the circumstances in which the NDE occurred. We also asked about how people changed after the experience and with whom they’ve communicated about the NDE. And most importantly, we asked about the type of support or help they’ve sought out, any difficulties they have had in finding support, and what reasons not to seek support there may be.
How can counselors participate in or benefit from this research?
For a full picture of the issues faced by NDErs and the resources that are available and beneficial to them, we have a parallel survey with counselors or therapists who have worked with NDErs in addressing their therapeutic needs. We are still recruiting participants in both the NDE experiencer and professional support groups.
I was fortunate to present at the 2019 ACISTE conference in Atlanta last year, where I outlined some preliminary findings from this project. ACISTE is the perfect forum to share this work with professionals who are specifically focused on addressing the needs and well-being of people who’ve had spiritually transformative experiences. At present, 82 NDErs have contributed to the study. We primarily recruited subjects through IANDS, as well as several NDE Facebook pages. For the sake of brevity, I will only convey some results about difficulties faced by NDErs, and both the avenues for and barriers to seeking help. We also asked NDErs about changes in beliefs, practices, and relationships, and what we found was largely consistent with previous research.
What issues or problems may lead experiencers to seek help?
We summarized difficulties that NDErs face in several categories. Fifty-four percent of experiencers reported struggling with at least one of these issues. The most commonly endorsed difficulty (by more than a quarter of NDErs) stemmed from some aftereffect of the NDE. Many NDErs reported having unusual, paranormal abilities, such as being able to tell when people will die, communicating with spirits, having precognitive visions or dreams, or experiencing increased sensitivity and empathy towards other people.
A few NDErs reported seeking help for dealing with heightened emotions after the experience. And others reported seeking help for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder associated with the experience. To a lesser extent, NDErs reported seeking help for something in the NDE itself, such as trying to understand the experience and searching for answers about what happened during the NDE.
Ten percent of experiencers reported seeking help for some problem with other people, including issues stemming from other people not being able to understand the experience of the NDEr. In addition, NDErs reported miscellaneous issues such as trying to figure out their purpose after coming back, or dealing with an intense desire to go back “home” to the non-physical realm they experienced during the NDE.
Where did NDErs turn for help in addressing the difficulties they faced?
Seventy-one percent of NDErs sought some type of help. Of those, exactly half turned to a mental health professional, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors. Some turned to “spiritual counselors” (19%), including intuitives, shamans, or psychics. About 17% of NDErs who sought help turned to some kind of organization, including IANDS and ACISTE. An equal percentage of experiencers (15.5%) said they sought help from other health professionals (including doctors or nurses) or online resources (including Facebook groups and other ways to connect with other NDErs). Finally, 14% of experiencers who sought help turned to a “religious professional” (including clergy persons, chaplains, and religious counselors).
How exactly was the support NDErs received helpful or beneficial?
The first theme we found here is that NDErs benefit from receiving validation. This includes having one’s experience and reactions to it validated (29% of respondents), having a safe outlet to share thoughts and feelings about the NDE (26%), and receiving emotional support (23%). Some experiencers explicitly mentioned that it was beneficial for them to realize they were not crazy.
A second theme was that NDErs benefit from receiving insight and understanding. Over one third of experiencers reported that they benefited by receiving insight or a different perspective on difficulties they were experiencing. Twenty-six percent of NDErs said they got help in making sense of the NDE. And 12% of experiencers reported that they got help in understanding why the NDE happened to them. A few respondents also mentioned not knowing what the experience was.
The third theme that emerged in how NDErs benefit from getting support was relationships. Ten percent of NDErs reported that getting support helped improve their relationships with family and friends. In addition, seven percent reported that the support they received helped their family or friends better understand their experience and how they had changed after it.
What are the reasons that experiencers do not seek help?
Some experiencers simply don’t feel the need to seek help for processing their NDE or any difficulties resulting from it (25% of our sample). Aside from feeling no need, the most commonly endorsed reason for not seeking help (27%) was that experiencers didn’t think such help is available. Other logistical reasons for not seeking help include not being able to find appropriate help (15%) and not being able to afford it (12%). Some reasons were more emotional. Fear of being thought crazy or not being believed were each endorsed by at least 20% of NDErs. Thirteen percent of NDErs also endorsed “fear of being ridiculed” as a reason not to seek help. Eleven percent of respondents stated that they didn’t or couldn’t talk about the experience. Some NDErs shared experiences or perceptions of unavailability or inadequacy of support for NDErs.
Overall, while there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution or way to support all NDErs, three quarters of experiencers who got some kind of support in processing their NDE found it helpful and beneficial. Different people had different challenges and benefitted from different interventions, including therapy, talking to other experiencers, or even working with a shaman.
There is, however, still a lot of room for growth in avenues to help NDErs and I hope our study, when completed, provides some constructive input towards it. An important complement to the survey with NDErs is our survey for counselors who have worked with NDErs in helping them process the experience or manage any difficulties resulting from it.
Our definition of “counselor” here is broad and it includes mental health professionals (such as therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, and other physicians), chaplains, or any other types of counselors who have worked with near death experiencers. If you qualify and you’d like to participate, please follow this link: tinyurl.com/NDE-counselor-survey.
For those readers who are not counselors but have had an NDE and would like to participate in the NDE Help & Support Survey, please follow this link: tinyurl.com/NDEr-help-and-support. Please share both links with your counselor colleagues or others who may wish to know about or participate in either study. We are grateful for your help in expanding our understanding of the support needs of near-death experiencers.
To contact Dr. Pehlivanova directly, you may write her at email@example.com.