Bad vibes: The real problem with Goop's breathless praise of 'energy healing'

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It’s deeply gratifying to see the all the critical reviews of Gwyneth Paltrow's Netflix miniseries, “The Goop Lab," which boasts the wellness elitism and woo that the brand's become notorious for. The reality show, Paltrow’s most recent expansion of her self-care empire, explores alternative health treatments with gleeful irreverence for science.

While some dismiss Paltrow’s series as merely irritating and tone deaf, medical and mental health professionals have flagged the show as a seriously dangerous endorsement of treatments with little to no scientific evidence to back them. Of particular concern to some is Episode 5: “The Energy Experience,” in which Paltrow, her editor-in-chief Elyse Loehnen, and two Goop staffers join dancer Julianne Hough to undergo healing sessions with chiropractor and “body worker” John Amaral.

Amaral claims that his “energy healing” methods are supported by quantum physics. After his introduction, a title card tells the viewer that research on subatomic particles “implies that our consciousness can change our physical reality.” Amaral then proceeds to wave and hover his hands a few feet over his patients bodies as they writhe, twitch, and moan.

The results are incredible, in the literal sense of the word.

Hough calls Amaral’s methods “transformative” and states he helped her let go of painful memories about her parents’ divorce when he discovered she was holding a lot of anger in her foot. Loehnen said she had an “exorcism” during her session which focused on reducing her overall anxiety. The episode also featured testimonials from a woman who claimed Amaral cleared her of the childhood trauma she experienced growing up in an abusive household where food was scarce. A man who experienced extensive numbness in his body following lymphoma treatments went from being numb from the chest down to being able to pursue his love of running again.

“I left with this totally different perspective,” says Raquel, the woman with childhood trauma. “Fast forward to now: I feel this overwhelming peace and calmness and every single cell in my body knows it and feels it.”

Loehnen and Paltrow interview Amaral and his trainee, integrative physician Apostolos Lekkos following their sessions in a script that seems to have been lifted straight out of a late night infomercial.

“Do you find in your practice that you see people who have diseases and through your energy work that starts to shift?” asks Loehnen.

“Yeah sure,” says Amaral. “So I’m not treating a particular condition when I’m working with people but I have a hypothesis. If you just change the frequency of the vibration of the body itself it changes the way the cells regrow. It changes how the sensory system processes.”

Amaral shrugs off the lack of scientific evidence to support his hypothesis but does proudly take a quote from a quantum physics experiment completely out of context to “prove” that “our consciousness can change our physical reality.” While textbook science does not appear to be Amaral’s passion, his patients do seem pleased with the results of his treatment, so even if it’s all placebo effect, what’s wrong with promoting an alternative healing method that’s given some people a positive experience? A lot, says Florida-based psychotherapist Haley Neidich, one of a growing number of professionals who’ve expressed grave concern over the quick and glossy fixes Goop Lab promotes for serious mental and physical health conditions. While Paltrow and her coworkers may be using methods like energy healing as supplemental health enhancements, viewers desperate for a miracle cure for chronic mental or physical health problems could be seriously damaged by ditching their effective, evidence-based treatment for untested methods offered by unlicensed “healers.”

“I have seen, in my own private practice, people who have pretty significant mental health conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder who chose to go off their medicines when they met an energy healer, a psychic, and also someone who decided that kava tea was going to help manage their mood,” say Neidich. “Every single one of those people ended up in the hospital within a matter of weeks.”

The attraction to alternative methods is understandable. Medications for psychiatric issues can have unpleasant side effects, carry a massive societal stigma, and effectiveness can vary. Plus, many of them take several weeks to kick in, which can create a breeding ground for hopelessness and frustration. Weekly psychotherapy sessions for intensive trauma can be painful and progress may seem to move at glacial speed. Who wouldn’t want to ditch the daily recovery grind in favor of an hour “on the table” with a healer like Amaral and have their pain released, never to return?

The rush to try Goop-endorsed methods may be fine for those looking to make themselves more Instragramable to fellow bougie wine moms, but Neidich worries that people with serious issues — severe depression, panic, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and possible suicidal ideation — are entering unknown waters with unvetted guides.

“The person who is doing this treatment is not a licensed mental health professional who knows how to hold space for someone processing trauma,” says Neidich. “So what happens when you’re in a space with somebody who is having a re-experiencing of a childhood trauma or a sexual assault and you don’t know what to do? You’re potentially sending that person out into the world with a lot of pain.”

And what happens, heaven forbid, if your healer isn’t quite as skilled or ethical as “Goop Lab” purports Amaral to be? What happens to a person looking for relief from mental or physical trauma doesn’t find the instant relief heralded by those in the episode? Neidich says those seeking a miracle cure are particularly vulnerable to financial, psychological, and emotional manipulation.

“I think often, they end up thinking it’s their fault, and this ends up speaking to the toxic positivity culture. I’ve seen some toxic stuff where [healers] blame the person and they say ‘You must just not be ready to heal. You’re not really letting it in. You’re not really letting it go,’ and knock them down so low, and then convince them to purchase more sessions,” she says. “The most dangerous is: ‘you’re choosing this.’” Neidich has worked with clients who thought they were ‘choosing to be unhappy’ when the reality is they were severely depressed or anxious.

Despite her criticisms of “Goop Lab,” Neidich says she’s not against alternative medicine.

She meditates daily and has even found relief from the energy healing method Reiki, but when it comes to treating serious issues like depression or anxiety, the research and evidence on energy healing just isn’t there.