Are You Using Astrology as a Coping Mechanism?
How I used astrology to guide my well-being, and where I drew the line
Astrology has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a Hindu household, Vedic astrology, or Jyotish, reverberated in the background of my life. In my community, it’s not uncommon for an astrologer to analyze the heavens to determine a couple’s compatibility, or use a detailed chart of planetary positions at the time and date of a baby’s birth to predict personality traits or future endeavours.
In my case, astrological guidance was the reason I wore a silver moon pendant on a red string as a kid. An astrologer told my parents the necklace would strengthen the influence of the moon on my life, thereby boosting my confidence, self-esteem and intelligence. It may seem like nonsense or superstition to some, but for my family, it was a simple remedy to follow, passed down over centuries of cultural tradition. Interpreting what effects the stars and planets could have in our lives was an essential part of maintaining our well-being.
Over the years, I wavered in my belief in astrology. I no longer wear my moon necklace, but reading daily horoscopes and astrological guidance gave meaning to my place in a large universe. In true Libra fashion, I constantly weighed the benefits I felt from astrology with a dose of skepticism. I wondered: can astrology play a role in modern wellness?
The association between astrology, health and well-being isn’t new. For centuries, health practitioners used medical astrology, a tradition also referred to as iatromathematics, as an integral tool. Lori Jones, a medical historian based in Ottawa, explains that medieval doctors, for example, were expected to have astrological knowledge, and referencing the stars was a regular part of life.
“What we see in medieval medicine is the idea that physicians were very often learned in astrology, because they had to understand what position the stars, moon and sun were in, in order to know what therapies they were going to use,” says Jones. “People often would use the alignment of stars and planetary constellations to decide when they were going to do things or when they shouldn’t be doing things.” Even the term influenza, from the Italian meaning “influence of the stars,” was coined because of the belief that certain constellations corrupted the air and caused the respiratory disease. And though the use of medical astrology declined in the 17th and 18th centuries, its influence can still be seen today.
The New Age Movement
Daily horoscopes began appearing in British newspapers in the 1930s and their popularity soon spread to North America. Then, in the 1970s, the New Age movement arrived. As the hit song from The 5th Dimension went, it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius—a time when practices like astrology, tarot readings and meditation were considered tools to help with personal transformation, appealing to those looking for alternatives to traditional medicine and psychotherapy. By the 1980s, a small study indicated people sought out astrologers when dealing with stressful situations but didn’t continue to seek advice when the stress abated. Astrology, in this context, was a coping mechanism.
More recently, a new generation of stargazers has started exploring astrology through social media and astrology apps. Co-Star, for example, is powered by a combination of artificial intelligence, data from NASA and input from astrologers and creative writers. There is also the Pattern, an app that promises in-depth insights into personality traits, or the Chani app, with horoscope and birth chart readings from Canadian astrologer Chani Nicholas. Each of these apps offers personalized readings for the user based on their birth information, and updates on planetary transits, like when Mercury goes into retrograde, a shift believed to bring on mishaps and miscommunication.
“Astrology recognizes the fundamental truth that we are intimately connected with our universe,” says Nicholas Campion, director of the University of Wales’ Sophia Centre of the Study of Cosmology in Culture. He explains that astrology, much like spirituality, allows us to zoom out and find our place in the world.
Learning about Western astrology using websites and apps gave meaning to aspects of my personality, like how my decision-making style could be related to the position of Mercury at the time of my birth. I didn’t let my horoscope dictate my day-to-day life, but I appreciated having the gentle nudge to reflect on my strengths, challenges and the potentially deeper purpose of my life.
(Related: What Is A Soul Coach? And Do You Need One?)
Image: LeeAndra Cianci
The Astrology Fad
Astrology’s recent rise in popularity, especially among millennials like me, has been linked to people seeking out tools for their well-being.
Emmanuella Kaputo, a 28-year-old living in Toronto, first started learning about astrology two years ago and found it to be a helpful tool for self-analysis. “Astrology helped me analyze how, as a Capricorn, I can be controlling, and to try to rectify [that]. It drove more self-awareness in me, which allowed me to release things that weren’t serving me in relationships.”
More than one-third of Canadians believe in the concept of astrology, according to a 2019 Research Co. survey. Among Canadian millennials (aged 18 to 34), nearly half were believers. The “mystical services” market, comprising services like tarot and aura readings as well as astrology, is estimated to be worth $2.2 billion in the United States and astrology apps alone had a revenue of over $40 million, also in the U.S., in 2019.
“Historically, the popularity of the Western tradition of astrology ebbs and flows, and [now] astrology is having a moment,” says Charm Torres, a Victoria-based professional astrologer, tarot reader and writer. Torres, who is also a millennial, founded a consultation practice in 2017 and has taken several astrology courses. Since the pandemic, she’s been seeing her clients virtually, often fielding questions about moving, relationships and money.
When Astrology Became a Coping Mechanism
“During the pandemic, the world was collapsing. A lot of people were losing their jobs and housing, and they were dying. People were dealing with grief, so I feel like, in that sense, people were needing a lot of guidance,” says Torres, who saw an increase in people seeking consultation.
In a recent Ipsos poll, 28 percent of Canadians said their mental health had deteriorated over the course of the pandemic, and 66 percent of Canadians felt as though there weren’t enough mental health supports available in their community. Researchers from De La Salle University in the Philippines looked into how the isolation and unpredictability of the pandemic might impact interest in astrology, especially for young people. They found that many university students used astrology as a way to cope and escape, providing a semblance of stability and reassurance that tomorrow will be better. Their study, published in 2021, noted that “the more stressed a person is, the higher the consumption of astrology-related information on social media,” an association that was even stronger among women.
During the pandemic, this tool that I had been using for guidance and affirmation started to become an obsession. Eventually, it became a new source of stress. I didn’t want to read a post telling me a new cycle was starting and that the conjunction of the planets that day was an “optimal time to manifest.” I deleted my astrology app and unfollowed astrology accounts on social media. I wanted to just be—and wondered if I had started to ignore my own intuition in favour of astrological advice. Or worse, if looking to the stars for guidance was actually eroding my well-being.
“Whether it’s food or sex or astrology, when we keep going outside of ourselves to find ourselves, we become addicted to something in a very unhealthy way,” says Jennifer Freed, a California-based psychological astrologer who has been studying this field for more than 30 years.
She emphasizes that horoscopes aren’t meant to be a one-stop shop for answers. Instead, they’re a starting point for working on your life—which is also why overloading on daily affirmations and social media posts won’t help. “If you’re living your life by sound bites that some computer’s delivering to you, you’re probably not honouring your inner wisdom,” she says. In an effort to avoid dependency, Freed only gives clients one astrological reading per year.
Not much has been researched on the effects astrology can have on mental health, says Freed, in part because it’s not taken seriously-—an outlook that impacts research funding in this area. In addition, while different certificate programs exist to learn about the study of astrology, there’s no formal accreditation process to become an astrologer in North America.
Toronto-based psychologist Nicole McCance says while astrology can provide a short-term boost to mental wellness, it doesn’t replace things like therapy, where you get personalized solutions and techniques to implement.
“In general, I feel like if you’re not feeling good, you need therapy and not a horoscope,” McCance says. She explains that with talk therapy, for instance, clients are able to delve into issues and then receive feedback from a trained mental health professional. “None of that happens with astrology,” she says.
McCance warns users to be wary of the Barnum effect, a psychological phenomenon often associated with tarot, horoscopes and psychics, where individuals interpret vague personality descriptions as applying specifically to them. The De La Salle study found that the more stressed individuals were, the more susceptible they were to the Barnum effect. The risk, McCance explains, is that individuals will let information that isn’t relevant to their personal situation influence their decision-making. While many people may be using astrology as a coping mechanism, McCance emphasizes that it’s important to consider where looking to the stars for answers falls short, and when it might be time to get mental health support instead.
Keira Zikmanis, a registered clinical counsellor based in Victoria, B.C., says that although astrology can be used as a tool for self-reflection, it’s important to have boundaries. She encourages users to be intentional about the amount of astrology on their social media and set time limits when looking at websites or apps. Beyond that, she says it’s important for people to reflect on why they use astrology.
“Some questions you can ask yourself are, ‘When do I open my astrology app?’ or ‘What am I feeling before or after I look at them?’ ‘What value is astrology adding to my life?’” she says. Doing this can help identify which needs you’re trying to fulfill using astrology and then encourage you to consider if there are other ways to address those needs. “If there’s a fear of uncertainty of what might happen, you might want, in addition to looking at astrology, to reach out to a friend and talk about how you’re feeling anxious about the pandemic or feeling afraid.”
For now, millennial astrology aficionado Emmanuella Kaputo says horoscopes and star charts add value to her life, though she says everything has to be in moderation. She’s eager to explore her own birth chart and learn from astrologers on social media. I’m not sure if I’ll download an astrology app again, but I plan to find an astrologer for a yearly reading to guide my personal growth.
As I write this, the full moon is in Taurus, meaning the moon will appear within the V-shaped constellation representing the face of the bull, directly opposite the sun. For the uninitiated, full moons are emblematic of shining light into the darkness, and offer a time to reflect—an optimal moment to check in with our feelings, especially as we head into 2022.
As a Libra, I’m always trying to balance astrology’s health benefits with its risks. For me, the verdict is still out, but until then, I plan to keep my feet on the ground while cautiously letting my mind wander the cosmos.