Interpretative phenomenological analysis: mental Illness
There are various anomalous experiences reported as enhancing instead of showing poor mental health. The experiences are out of body where the person’s body and self are said to be phenomenologically separated. The objective of the study was to look into these experiences and their after effects. A phenomenological, idiographic, qualitative approach was used. Participants were three individuals who took part in face to face interviews that were semi structured. Interpretative phenomenological analysis found out that off body experiences occurred during personal significance times. They were linked to the lives of participants beyond the occurrence point and were an adaptation to difficult events in life.
Interpretative phenomenological analysis is a method of qualitative research for knowing the perceptions of individuals into a phenomenon. It lays its focus on the uniqueness of individual perceptions and thoughts thus the researcher has to be immersed in the private world of the individuals.
Out of body experience where “the center of consciousness appears to the experient to occupy temporarily a position which is spatially remote from his/her body” ,has been a topic of discussion for a long period of time. This experience is associated with various features like, seeing the physical part of the body from a remote space point, a sensation of floating, and a travelling distant locations impression. The prevalence of this condition to the population is about 9-13% with a high percentage in students (25%). Off body experience is a phenomenon that an individual experiences severally (Palmer & Braud, 2002). In their research found out that 79% of their respondents experienced the OBE twice, 39% five times, and 10% more than ten times. Research done previously has aimed at profiling individuals with off body experiences in order to get a description of their personality, or get a prediction of the kind of people likely to get off body experiences. People who have heard these experiences are described to having dissociation measures like somatoform, being prone to fantasy, paranormal beliefs, and are prone to psychological absorption.
Research in psychology considers out of body experiences as hallucinations that have a link to mental disorders like schizophrenia or depersonalization but there are no linkages between psychosis and off body experiences. Schizotypy is portrayed as concept of psychology encompassing several personality traits related to schizophrenia and psychosis. Psychosis and schizophrenia are seen as breaks in psychological functioning in normality. model separates schizotypy from mental illness but still allows some aspects of it to be associated with such illness. This model is composed of four factors; cognitive disorganization, beliefs and perceptions, social behavior like non conformity, mood disinhibition, and impulsiveness, and introversive anhedonia. This model shows that schizotypy may be adaptive during anomalous experiences despite being associated to psychopathology.
Previous works have criticized off body experiences researches into requiring a precise approach rather than eliciting the experiences before coming up with hypotheses that are testable and would provide best psychological views on the phenomenon. There is no systematic work conducted to prove the impacts of off body experiences on individuals. Research therefore tends to ignore the significance or relevance of the experience to the individual with it. Thus there is need to examine the after effects of persons having off body experiences and define the nature of the effects. Up to date there is no research claiming to examine lived experiences of off body experiences and the meanings attributed to them by individuals.
A qualitative approach (Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis) was adopted enabling an in depth engagement with and analysis of individuals with accounts of off body experiences (OBE). Semi structured face to face interviews were used to achieve this. The use of interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) in the study focused on interpreting and finding the meanings of OBEs, and coming up with perceived implications to mental illness.
Sampling in this qualitative analysis is purposive. It looks at the opinions and experiences of appropriate individuals for the specific issue of research. There are factors that influence the size of a study sample but in IPA the sample size is infinite (Smith & Osborn, 2008). Intensive individual accounts analysis and examining of shared meanings together with the meanings nuances reflect idiographic features of IPA which is characterized by homogeneous and small samples. For these requirements to be met three individuals were recruited to participate (one female and two males). Two participants were from a data base of respondents who had previously taken part in research and left their contacts for future participation while one was chosen at a conference.
John (30 years) had an estimate of 20 to 50 OBEs which had started in childhood. He started by experiencing various physical sensations which began with a vibration or buzzing throughout his body. This was followed by sleep paralysis and pressure feeling on the chest region. He then felt light headed before feeling that he had left his physical body to the out of body environment. As an adult his OBEs began after his sister’s death and his most important bit of his OBEs is the belief that he communicates with the deceased sister.
Joan (46 years) reported only two OBEs which she described as having a floating sensation as a teenager when she was listening to music. When she was 20 years of age she had her first OBE when going to sleep, four to five weeks after her child birth. She said it was very quick and all she could do was staring at her body lying in bed. The OBE environment according to her was similar to her room apart from the transparency of the walls and ceiling. In this state she had a voice asking her to go back as her time had not reached which she did quickly but before she could wake up completely she heard the voice of her grandfather asking her not to worry and telling her that the baby was unwell. She was frightened and had to take her baby to the hospital the following day where it was diagnosed with pneumonia.
David (29 years) had two OBEs. At the age of ten he was diagnosed with epilepsy which he received controlling medication for. His first experience was at 18 years. He was in his room where he started with sleep paralysis, then went back to sleep and left his body. He was sitting at the corner of the room on the book case looking down on his body that lay on the bed. As he stared at his physical body, it appeared as if the room was coming towards him and he woke up.
A list of topics such as biographic details, OBE background and details, reactions after OBE, persons life since and other experiences had, were prepared as interview questions. All the interview questions were open ended for example, “please tell me about your experiences with all the details you can remember.” Interviews were recorded and transcribed for future references. Semi structured interviews are led by participants in interpretative phenomenological analysis in that the researcher indirectly facilitates the interview. Researcher establishes a rapport with interviewee based on openness and not being judgmental. The researcher demonstrates empathic attentiveness and maintains a distance in order to remain aware of the instances that are unusual in the experiences. Each interview was conducted in accordance to these principles.
Interpretative phenomenological analysis was the method used to analyze this data. IPA is rooted in phenomenological psychology, symbolic interactionism, and hermeneutics (Smith, Jarman & Osborn, 1999). It s phenomenological state is derived from the fact that it seeks to honor and obtain individuals experiences, perceptions, accounts, and understandings. An objective truth is not constructed from these experiences rather concern is directed into the meanings and subjective account of the experiences. IPA however acknowledges that in trying to access someone else’s world, “access depends on and is complicated by the researcher’s own conceptionsrequired in order to make sense of that other personal world through a process of interpretative activity” (Smith, Jarman, & Osborn, 1999).
This explains that individuals are social beings who engage in interactions and social contexts to make meaning. IPA utilizes a symbolic perspective to show meanings attributed to OBEs are the results of making sense between social world actors. IPA is in recognition of the fact that experience interpretation is grounded and not idiosyncratic. IPA deals with text so the point of starting for an analyst is producing a transcript of all interviews with the answers and questions complete (Smith & Osborn, 2008). Researchers are encouraged to be creative where applicable since IPA is a non prescriptive approach. There are four stages of IPA process.
Stage one – the researcher puts himself in the shoes of the participants in order to know the how their world is like. He makes notes about the perceptions of the participants and theirs too. These notes ground the analysis in data. In stage two the preliminary notes of the researcher are transformed into psychological language themes. The third stage involves clustering the themes. In stage four themes and a table of clusters are produced in summary giving a good overview of how they fit into each other (Willig, 2001). If small samples were used the procedure is repeated for all samples and the cases analyzed.
Validity and reliability
Validity and reliability in research is essential and are achieved through; frequent meeting of authors to compare transcripts and analyses. These comparisons enable a validity check on the interpretations and analysis of accounts at the same time ensuring the analysis credibility. Qualitative analysis reliability and validity is assessed on the basis of internal consistency of arguments presented and sufficiency of data given by participants. The themes that emerge are supported by participants’ speech.
There were three themes from the OBEs participants; facilitators and barriers to experience sharing; rescue, recovery and consequence (positive effects); biographical context of OBE. Each theme is discussed below
Facilitators and barriers to experience sharing
John and Joan had a strong will and desire to share their off body experiences in order to understand them better. Mixed reactions from family and friends had followed their sharing. David on the other side did not talk about his experience for fear of derision provocation in others. He only talked about the sleep paralysis which confused and frightened him leaving out the out of body experience and thought that it indicated the recurrence of epilepsy. John said his parents dismissed the issue as a dream or nightmare. He therefore distanced himself from sharing these out of ordinary experiences with anyone which led to reduction in his social skills activities. He felt powerless, frustrated, isolated, and undervalued for lack of opportunities to share these experiences which were significant in his life.
Support from various sources was received by the participants since the first OBEs. John and his mother became close after the sister’s death. His account in which he was visited by the deceased was a consolation for the family. He had joined a paranormal investigation group after the sister’s death to seek acceptance and support for his beliefs and experiences. Joan cared less about negative reaction of people after sharing her experiences which she attributed to the feeling of life after death that was manifested in her account.
Rescue, recovery, and consequence (positive effects of OBEs)
John described his experience as a story of healing and recovery after a tragedy. The tragic death of his sister was upsetting to the whole family. His communication with the deceased sister provided proof that she was happy which made him and his family heal. Joan’s story was also about healing and recovery since it rescued her newly born. David’s story had a mild positive effect. His fear of the paralysis aspect of the OBE and its relation to recurring epilepsy was of concern to him but he would not mind a repeat of the experience.
Biographical context of OBE
David felt that the experience had not changed much in his life since the shock of the paralysis had overshadowed the out of body experience. OBE is seen as paranormal because its name suggests that the mind or consciousness detaches from the body. David and John supported this argument of paranormality. They viewed their experiences as positive and life affirming. Since his experience, John was open minded to paranormal phenomena and anomalous events. He researched a lot in order to understand these phenomena. He felt that the experiences were uplifting despite adverse reactions from friends and family. Joan felt that her experience was a warning on her baby’s illness and changed her fearful attitude towards death and dying. She was more sensitive to accidents and deaths which she believed was a spiritual connection.
The after effects of out of body experiences and their nature discussed in this study have revealed that OBE is affectively and socially complex; the integration of which could positively add to an individual’s mental well being.
OBEs have been connected to mental illness in the past researches. Mental disorders are a source of stigma in the society, in form of discrimination and psychological processes (McDonald, Sauer, Howie, & Albiston, 2005). The participants in this study can not be said to have experienced direct stigmatization and discrimination but there are views that suggest that they were abnormal. Negative comments like those can lead to low self esteem and debilitating effects on ones identity. Poor self disclosure experiences can cause long term negative consequences in terms of integration of experiences.
The process of integration must be of openness and honest disclosure to be met with empathy, acceptance and understanding mostly from trusted and caring role models of the participant. The participants in this study did not find the support needed in the first disclosure but they did eventually. Positive effects of disclosing these experiences are related to measures of existence and personal meaning in life and well-being psychologically (Palmer & Braud, 2002). Participants emphasized on finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life, happiness, fear of death reduction, and compassion. They all had a positive mood towards life after their experiences.
It is interesting to have encounters with the dead as was experienced by two participants. This is because this experience is termed as a near death aspect of OBE where the individual experiences death of the physical body and outside the body consciousness. These issues have not been reported before as OBE aspects. This may be because of previous researches had not allowed the participants to express this part of their experiences. But it also leaves the doubts of OBEs being part of the communications or is it just a belief of acceptance of death.
The participants reported their experiences with the deceased as being beneficial as it helped them cope with emotional distress in their lives. McCreery & Claridge, (2002) suggested that there could be an existing adaptive value in anomalous events. They gave an example of suffering from post operative pain and the pain is reported to be less after an out of body experience. There are also claims of reassuring hallucinations where individuals see human figures that subsequently calm them down (Green & McCreery, 1975).
The participants in this study were aware of OBEs before their personal encounter with them and they strongly believed in their experiences. The participants’ belief in paranormal phenomena has been researched widely in relation to schizotype personality and anomalous experiences’ adaptive value. For example, it was suggested that believing in paranormal events provides individuals with a way of accepting and explaining their anomalous experiences (William & Irwin, 1991). It was observed that participants who supported their experiences with a certain framework of beliefs were more pleasant when narrating their experiences which added a positive effect to their psychological well being. Individuals with weaker beliefs found their experiences alarming, disturbing, and unwanted.
Limitations to this study are the fact that the three participants do not represent a whole population of OBEs on account that; all there experiences were related to sleep and two participants experienced sleep paralysis. Paralysis is common in OBEs. David, one of the participants had epilepsy which he was still under medication for. It is noted that anomalous experiences and OBEs are linked to temporary symptomatology of the lobe but in this study David said he had been fit for ten years and had never had an OBE during a seizure.
The study has a small sample thus generalization of results for wider populations of OBE are not made. IPA does not oppose larger population’s generalization but its commitment is in case analysis instead of generalization. This study therefore laid its focus on meaning and experience of individuals who have shown and indicated the meaning of OBE explicatively.
Qualitative findings in this study show that the existence of OBEs and the knowledge about them is true. The participants followed a particular healthy adaptation patterns after their out of body experiences showing features of adaptive tasking (positively dealing with impacts of the experience and being able to maintain healthy relationships everyday)and use of constructive and active strategies of coping. Participants cognitively appraised their experiences at first then redefined them. This involved leaving a period of confusion initially that was caused by the experience to a life affirming and positive occurrence claims. They then engaged in particular behaviors focused on problems which they sought support and information out. In some cases they acted on the information received in order to understand their condition and bring meaning to out of body experiences that they had.
The phenomenological and idiographic approach in this study research is significant in show casing the little social factors and personal factors that have an impact on the management of out of body experience and its integration during the process of maturation. This work shows an account that is in depth on how to improve the mental wellbeing of individuals who are as a consequence of anomalous experiences and paranormal phenomena.
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