Near-death experiences triggered by stress, not delusion or mental illness, says survey

Near-death experiences, where people believe that they leave their bodies and enter heaven or hell, are caused by a normal reaction to stress and not psychiatric illness or delusion, new research shows.

Near-death experiences, where people believe that they leave their bodies and enter heaven or hell, are caused by a normal reaction to stress and not psychiatric illness or delusion, new research shows.

Scientists and doctors have long recognised the strange visions of tranquil journeys or hellish experiences by people who have died and being resuscitated, but the cause has been hotly disputed. Most believe that people who are close to death are vulnerable to delusions and just repeat whatthey have seen or heard before.

However, Dr Bruce Greyson, from the University of Virginia, has found that near-death experiences are not related to delusion or mental illness, but are part of the way the body copes with intolerable stress. "This study contributes to the growing evidence that near-death experiences are not symptoms of psychiatric disorder, and that those who experience it should not be treated as mentally ill," he said.

His study of 134 people who had been close to death, published in The Lancet, showed that 72 per cent of them had experienced some form of dissociation of their thoughts and feelings from their bodies - an "out of body experience" - with younger people being more likely to have done so.

The findings revealed that women were more likely than men to have out of body experiences. However, people did not display pathologically high levels of dissociating their bodies and minds. "The profile of people who had near-death experiences was a non-specific response to stress rather than a profile of someone with a pathological disorder," he said.

For many people, near-death experiences are accompanied with feelings of intense peace and joy. However, previous research conducted at the University of Coventry showed that half of those who came close to death had a "hellish" experience.

Joyce Harvey, a 75-year-old retired CID officer from Essex, had a near-death experience when she was recovering in hospital from a chest infection. Ms Harvey said that she washaving problems breathing when she suddenly felt very cold and could not move. "I started going down and down in a life, with someone pulling my legs which were really hot," she said. "There were terrible noises, discordant notes, and screaming. I could see thousands of faces without bodies beneath me; they were trying to pull me down further and further. I was terrified."

Ms Harvey said that she felt she was dying and fought to come back to life. "Suddenly I was coming back up in the lift and the nurse was standing in front of me," she said. "I had no particular beliefs and believe it was my body responding to lack of oxygen."

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