Zoom tarot readings and astrology chat-lines: when does paying for spiritual reassurance turn into an addiction?

From Etsy mediums and tarot readings to astrology charts and crystals, more and more of us have turned to alternative methods to find reassurance over the pandemic. But when does paying for spiritual services turn into an addiction? Stylist investigates. 

It started during the first lockdown. Sarah*, 28, from London, had been job hunting, but as Covid-19 tightened its grip on the UK, finding a new role suddenly seemed impossible. Then her boyfriend abruptly ended their relationship and moved out. Faced with the prospect of months at home alone, working in an unsatisfying role and dealing with a break-up, Sarah’s anxiety levels spiked. “I had no idea what to do,” she says. “I felt like my life was such a mess.”

So, what do you do when you can’t see a way forward? Well, you could always seek out someone who can. 

More commonly a destination for handmade candlesticks and vintage T-shirts, Sarah learned via Reddit that online marketplace Etsy also lists huge numbers of spiritualists, psychics and mediums – with readings and associated wares available for as little as 99p.

Intrigued, Sarah purchased two readings for £5 each. “I was anxious and wanted to know whether things would improve for me,” she says. “I think I just wanted someone to tell me I was going to be OK.” 

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To some, this might seem unusual, but statistics suggest otherwise. In the US, the spiritual services industry is currently worth $2 billion (£1.5bn). In the UK, ‘tarot or astrology’ premium-rate chat lines are among some of the highest-grossing, generating around £27 million of revenue a year. 

It seems selling hope is big business – and it’s not just psychic guidance we’re seeking.

Peruse certain corners of Etsy and, readings aside, you’ll find many other items designed to provide guidance and attract health, wealth and love into our lives. There are pendulums, tarot cards, enchanted oils and spells to perform at home (or, for the less DIY-inclined, for the seller cast on your behalf).

Naturally, there’s every crystal imaginable; a multi-billion dollar industry in its own right. When demand for diamonds was projected to drop 20% during the pandemic, gemstones held their value. Per Fast Company, searches for ‘crystal healing’ have grown 40% in the past four years. 

You’ll probably know a convert yourself: while researching this story, my friend told me she is “heavily reliant” on her crystals to help her “deal with people” and a work contact mentioned her friend brought some along to their recent catch-up to “charge” in the sun.

With Covid restrictions barely behind us, we’re now recovering from the huge collective trauma of the pandemic, during which many of us have lost jobs or loved ones. And we’re bracing for even more tumult with rocketing living costs and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In this context, these rituals might seem harmless –  a quick shot of reassurance in times of uncertainty.

It’s also easy to accuse detractors of the bog-standard misogyny that encircles so many female-dominated interests. You might have seen a dismissive ‘astrology girl’ meme doing the rounds on social media

But as with so much that concerns our personal pain points, sometimes things morph from a pick-me-up into a crutch – something Sarah feels is relatable.

In the end, both readings Sarah received were eerily alike: a new job at the end of the year, one shorter relationship and then she’d meet a long-term partner in June. However, this simply didn’t happen: she’s currently single and still working in her original role.  


But this didn’t stop her from making several more purchases. The low cost, combined with an emotional boost from the allure of good things yet to come, proved difficult to resist. “I’m embarrassed I bought more readings, but honestly, it made me feel better,” says Sarah. “It’s completely illogical but the excitement from receiving a positive prediction gave me an extra boost to keep going, really.”

Studies into psychic dependency are few, but there is evidence to suggest there are parallels between addictions such as substance use disorders and a compulsion to seek such advice. “Paying for predictions can be understood as a desire to reduce anguish from not knowing and the unknown,” explains psychotherapist Dr Marianne Trent, who says the pandemic hit us with a psychological triple-threat: increasing worry levels, reducing our ability to control our own lives and making it more difficult to receive appropriate support from friends and family.

“This becomes problematic when people stop being able to soothe themselves and repeatedly turn to external sources for reassurance,” Dr Trent continues. “It can develop into an obsessive compulsive-type presentation. In the longer term, this will elevate distress levels, but to the sufferer, it feels as if it’s helping to reduce anxiety.”

“In general, we have lost touch with our intuition and don’t understand how to trust ourselves anymore,” agrees Devon-based psychic Yolandi Boshoff. “Tarot and astrology are ancient tools that can guide us and help us discover more about ourselves. But when we become so reliant on cards or astro charts to tell us what our next move or decision should be, we go outside of ourselves, letting someone or something else determine our path forward instead.” 

You’ve probably been to at least one party where someone has whipped out a tarot deck, but Boshoff recommends taking the time to focus on your own intuition when faced with a dilemma, rather than immediately seeking insight from a pack of cards. “Take a few minutes to sit still, ask yourself your question and see what your body says,” she suggests. “What does a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ feel like for you? For me, a ‘yes’ is open with no contraction in my body, whereas a ‘no’ feels uncomfortable and my body pulls together. Play with these feelings and see what comes up.”

And when you feel like everything’s just going wrong? “Speak to yourself nicely, breathe, listen to positive music and remind yourself of all the great things you have done, even if they’re small,” suggests London-based transformational yoga teacher Aysha Bell. “When you wake up, go through everything you’re grateful for: family, friends, your bed, pets, even your fridge. When we are grateful, there is less room to spiral into negative thought patterns.”

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Looking back, Sarah doesn’t regret the money she spent on psychics in lockdown, claiming it helped her remember that, at some point, things would improve – something we all needed during those long, lonely months at home. As life slowly returns to normal, however, she feels less dependent on readings. She also acknowledges she didn’t make any life-changing decisions based on what she was told.  

Nonetheless, Sarah hasn’t kicked the habit completely – an invite to interview for an exciting job saw her ask a psychic whether they felt she would receive an offer or not. “They told me I would be successful, which was reassuring, given how long I’ve been looking for a new role,” she says brightly.

Then her tone switches; she’s more reflective, acknowledging the poor track record for prior predictions. “Really, though,” she muses, “I suppose all I can actually do is just try my best – then just wait and see.” 

*Name has been changed 

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