Presentation made by Nancy Egger at the 2007 National Association of Social Worker State Conference

Shamanism and Social Work:  Bridging the Worlds

Over tens of thousands of years, our ancient ancestors all over the word discovered how to optimize human abilities of mind and spirit for healing and problem-solving.  The remarkable system of methods that they developed is today known as “shamanism,” a term that comes from a Siberian tribal word for its practitioners: “shaman.”  Shamanism is a system of beliefs and practices from all over the world, and represents the most wide-spread and ancient methodological system of mind-body healing known to humanity.  Archaeological and ethnological evidence suggests that shamanic methods are at least 20 or 30 thousand years old.  (Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman).

In shamanism, both physical and emotional illnesses are seen as connected to disharmony of the spirit.  Shamanic methods encourage psychological, emotional, and physical healing by treating the spiritual aspects of those illnesses.  It is a discipline that cultivates a heightened awareness of the connectedness of, and spiritual essence in, all things.  By seeking to restore what is out of balance or displaces, harmony is restored, allowing the true potential and direction of an individual to manifest.

The primary tool used by the shamanic practitioner is an altered state of consciousness, in which they can access information about the problem, and what needs to happen to resolve it.  This practice is referred to as the “shamanic journey.”  This altered state of consciousness may be achieved through a variety of methods, including the use of repetitive percussion, dancing, and even use of plants.

Research conducted by Melinda Maxfield, PhD, who specializes in cross-cultural healthcare, shows how various rhythmic drumbeats, such as those used by shamans, transmit sound frequencies along nerve pathways in the brain. She reports that results from pilot projects that she has initiated with stroke victims, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder patients suggest “that percussion can shift brain waves from the more rational beta state, to slower alpha and theta states where hypnagogic imagery, guidance, and sudden insights arise that can facilitate the healing process.”  (

Michael Winkelman, PhD has examined the use and efficacy of shamanic drumming as complementary addiction treatment, and concluded that “drumming enhances recovery thorough inducing relaxation and enhancing theta-wave production and brain-wave synchronization.  Drumming produces pleasurable experiences, enhanced awareness of preconscious dynamics, release of emotional trauma, and reintegration of self.” (“Complementary Therapy For Addiction:  Drumming Out Drugs, American Journal of Public Health, April 2003, Vol 93, No. 4)

The social worker may be considered an “urban shaman”- the individual sought out for assistance in restoring that personal balance.  As the largest group of behavioral health practitioners in the nation, and often the first to diagnose and treat people with mental disorders and various emotional and behavioral disturbances, clinical social work has a primary focus on the mental, emotional, and behavioral well-being of individuals, couples, families, and groups.  It centers on a holistic approach to psychotherapy, and the clients’ relationship to his or her environment.  (NASW Standards for Clinical Social Work in Social Work Practice, 2005)

Social workers seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and address their own needs, work to engage people as partners in the helping process, and work to strengthen relationships among people in a purposeful effort to promote, restore, maintain, and enhance the well-being of individuals, families, social groups, organizations, and communities. (NASW Code of Ethics, 2007)
The therapeutic counseling session is the vehicle through which the therapist helps the client regain peace, and a sense of control.  There are numerous common factors between spiritual healing and psychotherapy, both of which focus on a holistic view of the client and their environment, restoring a condition of wholeness or harmony, and empowering the client to make changes which support relinquishing views and activities that are causing difficulties.  Both focus on facilitating building new patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. (Integrating Traditional Healing Practices into Counseling and Psychotherapy,)    Shamanic healing practices can be a powerful clinical tool in this process.

The workshop will provide and overview of Shamanism and how those principles can be integrated into clinical social work practice, particularly the principles of individual empowerment for mind, body, and emotional healing.