Obsessed With Astrology? Here’s What Therapists Think About This Trend
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Let's face it: Astrology is fun. But can an obsession with the stars do more harm than good? Here's what therapists think.
Every astrological sign has a stereotype. If you’re an Aries, you’re aggressive, while Virgos are control freaks. A Taurus is supposed to be lazy; Aquarius, cold. Geminis are shallow, Cancers are over-sensitive, Leos are selfish, and Libras are indecisive. Scorpios embrace intensity. Sagittarius? Always flighty. Capricorns, meanwhile, are social climbers and Pisces—they live the escapist lifestyle.
While these categories can’t withstand the scrutiny of science, they provide a ton of comfort to some people as a way to understand their friends and family. But can that belief be taken too far—and maybe even be harmful?
Astrology through the ages
Zodiac signs and astrology date back to the ancient Middle East and Greece. Royalty looked to the stars for information on potential future disasters or successes. But astrology had a resurgence in the 20th century when newspapers started printing horoscope columns. Some people pair astrology with the use of tarot cards to gain insight.
You might think fewer people than ever would look to the stars for guidance, what with modern technology and science—but that’s not the case.
In a 2017 poll, the Pew Research Center found that almost 30 percent of Americans believe in astrology. The American Federation of Astrologers estimates the number of Americans who read their horoscope every day to be as high as 70 million, about 23 percent of the population, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
The question isn’t so much if astrology is real, but what impact believing, reading, or practicing it has on well-being. And is there a place for astrology in psychotherapy? Here’s what therapists think of the trend and what you need to know about astrology and mental health.
How astrology can help
People need to find something to anchor themselves to in the emotional discomfort, financial, and physical insecurity in which they live today, according to Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in New York, and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough.
Astrology and tarot allow people to project their innermost, often unconscious thoughts and desires onto something outside of themselves. One of the key elements of tarot and astrology is that they focus on the future. They provide a roadmap and insights on how best to navigate the things ahead. According to Hokemeyer, this offers a sense of order and direction that’s comforting when the future feels threatening and uncertain.
“Through this process, the patient can gain clarity on their feelings and find grounding in the uncertainty in which we are all currently living,” Hokemeyer says. “This is especially important in our modern ethos of Covid-19, the stress surrounding the 2020 elections, and a future that is uncertain and terrifying.”
(Learn the secrets your therapist won’t tell you.)
Astrology encourages self-awareness
The reflective nature of astrology and tarot helps people increase self-awareness, provides the ability to self-reflect, and spreads awareness of the present aspects of their lives.
According to licensed clinical social worker Courtney Tracy, PsyD, a non-conventional therapist and mindfulness expert in Orange County, California, both of these practices allow people to break from the day-to-day aspects of their lives and take pause, reflecting on their future desires, past struggles, and present inner and outer workings.
“The year 2020 has taught us that we are missing so many answers to so many questions, and one of the biggest questions we can ask in our lifetimes is ‘Why are we here?’ ” Tracy says. We look to the stars for answers because, historically, we always have.
Most religions contain some reference to a heaven or another essence of existence beyond our planet. “Astrology and tarot feel like self-empowered pathways to finding answers for people’s existential questions and suffering,” Tracy says.
Astrology is validating and easy to access
Part of the popularity of astrology and tarot today has to do with their universal nature, says Caroline Hexdall, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Center For Mindful Development in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“In part, this information is more readily available,” she says. “There are many resources online that are free.” And, again, the global pandemic and the political division that our country is experiencing are motivators for people to look to other resources in addition to more traditional forms of help, such as psychotherapy.
Astrology mostly focuses on the positive
Horoscopes tend to be generic and mostly positive, and it’s common for people to look for answers that give hope for a better future. They are often affirming and reassuring, which provides comfort, especially during a pandemic, says Hexdall.
Astrology and tarot may attract some people because the content resonates with them, providing a sense of validation for their obstacles or gifts, says Hexdall. “What they lack, however, are the important individual discoveries, individual interventions, and greater objectivity that a therapist can provide.”
Although many people might consider astrology and tarot a bit “woo-woo,” they are actually grounded in established psychotherapeutic formulations such as psychoanalysis and depth psychology, according to Hokemeyer.
Astrology may help you take action
Astrology and tarot provide an opportunity to project feelings and thoughts outside ourselves. In the process, people switch the focus from internal confusion to external clarity.
“By focusing on something outside ourselves, a specific card, the astrological alignment, we are able to move our consciousness from the intensity and reactivity of our limbic system,” Hokemeyer says. We shift to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that allows us to engage in planning and intentional action.
Both modalities—astrology and tarot—can promote journaling, positive affirmations, and attention to our own mental health as a daily practice, Tracy says. So these tools may help increase self-awareness and self-reflection.
Astrology and tarot can spark discussions in therapy
The broad nature of astrology and tarot readings can be starting places for people to recognize what resonates with them, according to Hexdall. They can be clues to what we want to cultivate more of in our lives, such as deeper connections with loved ones or a more fulfilling career.
“They may make the reader more aware of what questions they have after reading the card or horoscope that could be taken to a therapist who could help the individual change the direction they are intending,” Hexdall says.
The field of psychology is moving steadily away from the humanities into the realm of science, according to Hokemeyer. But having the best science is of little use if therapists are unable to deliver information to their patients.
Sometimes discussions around tarot and astrology can help. “They enable the therapist to engage with the patient and speak to them in a way that has a resonance and personal meaning to the patient,” Hokemeyer says. “There are cases in my practice where resorting to these projective techniques is beneficial.” The key is using it with patients who have a strong belief in them.
(Learn how to tell if your therapy is working.)
Astrology’s roots are in healing
Tracy notes that astrology and tarot are ancient forms of healing practices. And traditional therapy is not always appropriate for everyone. Astrology and tarot support those looking for an alternative or enhanced route towards healing.
“Similar to how there are religious-based therapists and therapies, I also believe it is completely appropriate for therapists to use any form of healing practice that aligns with their own or their clients’ preferences,” Tracy says.
“When a therapist is using these forms in conjunction with evidence-based practices, the importance lies in knowing when to move to more diagnostic and traditional forms of assessment and support,” she says.
When astrology can hurt
It’s important to remember that astrology and tarot have no basis in cognitive, biological, or psychological science. So people with both acute and chronic mental health symptoms should see a medical and/or clinical professional prior to using astrology or tarot as the sole solution, says Tracy.
It can be problematic if the person using it suffers from mental health disorders such as severe depression, for example. “They may be unable to see any hope and use the material to go deeper into their despair,” Hokemeyer says.
Astrology is not a replacement for professional help
Another example of astrology doing more harm than good: Someone with schizophrenia who suffers from paranoid delusions may misconstrue the material in ways that are destructive, adds Hokemeyer.
(Here’s how to suggest someone go to therapy.)
Although a therapist may support clients in their use of tarot or astrology outside of therapy, generally speaking, people typically seek support from a therapist because their needs and therapeutic goals are not being met or reached through astrology or tarot, according to Hexdall.
“Therapists are more likely to use evidence-based interventions to support clients with their needs,” she says. “This is not to say that someone who is using tarot or astrology cannot seek the support of a therapist.”
People may use both, and it would be up to the therapist to learn more about what motivates a client to seek out the support of each and how one can inform the other. It’s also important for the therapist to understand the nontraditional healing methods used in the client’s culture as this greatly influences rapport and how best to support clients, says Hexdall.
(Need help? Here’s how to find a therapist you trust.)
Using astrology as a crutch
It could also be harmful when someone relies only on astrology and tarot as it may lead to dependence, and it can make it hard to recognize when that tool is no longer helpful, says Hexdall.
Taking astrology and tarot readings too literally can also lead to increased isolation, depression, anxiety, and aggravation of underlying psychiatric conditions.
“Over-reliance on astrology or tarot, or any other spiritual approach, to the exclusion of others, could lead to a perpetuation of symptoms or difficulties rather than providing an individual the relief he or she is seeking,” Hexdall says.
More than likely, astrology and tarot aren’t a problem as long as people aren’t totally using them to replace professional help, Tracy says. And as long as people aren’t taking their horoscopes too literally.
Thanks to modern psychology and therapy, we have proven ways to manage our emotions—we don’t have to rely on the stars to explain our feelings. But there is still room for astrology and tarot. These practices may help spark discussions in therapy and encourage introspection, self-awareness, and action. Just don’t lean on it too heavily—it’s not a replacement for professional treatment or help.
- Brittanica: "Astrology"
- Smithsonian Magazine: "How Are Horoscopes Still a Thing"
- Pew Research Center: "‘New Age’ beliefs common among both religious and nonreligious Americans"
- Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything is Never Enough
- Courtney Tracy, LCSW, PsyD, a non-conventional therapist and mindfulness expert in Orange County, CA
- Caroline Hexdall, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Chapel Hill, NC, at the Center For Mindful Development