We all have our coping mechanisms during difficult times, the things we turn to for comfort and distraction. For most of my life, my coping mechanisms have been varied. Sometimes I’ve coped by having a dance party, painting, writing, cooking, and baking — or, one of my favorites, practicing tarot cards.

Tarot is so important to me that I even have a tattoo of three tarot cards on my right arm: The Sun (for hope, positivity, warmth, and success), The Moon (for intuition and release of fear), and the Queen of Wands (for courage, confidence, independence, determination and finding a strong sense of self).

The practice has a really rich history, having been used for hundreds of years to help people figure out what’s happening internally, and what they want externally.

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Illustration by Brittany England

Somewhere in between then and now though, tarot cards have become mistaken for having your future told, like a crystal ball or getting your palm read. But in all actuality, it actually acts as a reflective source of information.

In other words, it’s an opportunity to get in touch with your highest self.

While popular mystic activities like tarot and astrology feel mainstream and widely accepted today, they weren’t always this normalized.

When I was growing up and practicing regularly in the early 2000s, folks around me considered these as occult activities, things that people on the margins, or “woo-woo” people, practiced.

And thanks to religious rejection, specifically from Christianity, tarot cards have gotten a bad reputation for being opaque, confusing, or negative. Images like the Hanged Man, The Devil, Death, or the Three of Swords are often shown in movies, like the 1973 James Bond film, “Live and Let Die,” to predict a character’s death, a ruinous relationship or affair, or a tragic accident.

So I can understand why tarot cards might be received with worry or fear but, as mentioned earlier, tarot is not about predicting the future at all. (Also literally nothing can predict the future, because the future is always changing based on our actions.)

Tarot, if you take a closer look at the symbolism and backstory of the cards, is a way of providing us the power. It reminds us that our lives are complex, that the solutions to our dilemmas and desires are within reach.

Many times, I’ve drawn the Ten of Swords card. From the outside, the depiction might seem pretty ominous — there’s a person lying down with ten swords being thrust into them. While the symbolism might initially trigger fear, I get reminded that drawing this card doesn’t literally mean someone is going to thrust swords into me — it symbolizes a painful ending, deep wounds, a loss, or a crisis.

And ultimately, readings like this prepare me for upcoming loss and pain by reminding me that life is more complex than just getting wounded. Being wounded also means there’s an opportunity for me to grow as a person. So in the end, the Ten of Swords reminds me to use these situations to my advantage and grow into my higher self.

For Meg Jones Wall, a professional tarot reader who has been practicing daily for months, reading tarot has also helped her get through the stress of the current pandemic.

“I found tarot during a very dark time in my life, when I was struggling with depression and loneliness and a general sense of uncertainty about my place in the world,” says Jones Wall. She bought her first deck in the summer of 2016, a time where she was dealing with chronic illness and coming to terms with her queer identity.

“I learned to read tarot in the midst of all that stress, fear, and anger. To use the cards as a tool for both reflection and awareness. It became a very grounding, daily ritual for me that I’ve come to love deeply.”

This spiritual expression can be positive for us. Research about spirituality shows that when the spiritual paths we follow affirm and promote hope, forgiveness, and purpose, our mental health benefits.

Jones Wall grew up deeply entrenched in “an intense, fire-and-brimstone type evangelical church.” Her religion helped her learn how to acknowledge a lack of power and control over how scary things can be. To an extent, that can be helpful, but if spirituality continues to emphasize powerlessness, research also shows that can be damaging.

That’s why positive intentions, in approaches to tarot, matter so much.

For Jones Wall, she finds tarot helpful for turning a negative moment around. “I find a lot of comfort in the cards, even when they’re giving me hard truths. [The] emotion reflected in the cards makes me feel seen and heard in a way that I can’t completely explain. They honor wherever I am, every day, and it helps me feel less alone.”

Like Jones Wall, I turn to tarot to find peace and clarity about things that are bothering me. It allows me to acknowledge trauma and challenges while finding practical, real solutions to get to know myself better.

It’s simply a beautiful coping mechanism to lean on. I see it as an act of meditation for situations I want to find answers to. Drawing cards helps me discover new ways of thinking. Sometimes, my gut instincts about a situation or person are even affirmed.

“The tarot reflects where you’re at, so if you are not in a calm and peaceful place, you’ll get angsty, agitated cards,” says Michelle Tea, writer and tarot card reader whose work I’ve been following for years. She tells me her tarot practice has also helped her to find calm and peace, especially during difficult times.

“But what is helpful is, by working with the tarot you become accustomed to how hard cards roll over into easy cards, roll over into negative cards, roll over into positive cards,” Tea says. “The tarot reminds us that all of life is change and flux, and it can help us get comfortable with that. Even the horrid Tower is followed by The Star.”

At one point, traditional decks with more intense images, like the Rider Waite, were most common. Now there are literally hundreds of newer, more comfortingly designed decks to choose from.

For example, there’s the Gaian Tarot deck with wildlife, plants, and elemental depictions, for those who believe in earth-centered spirituality. There’s an Alice in Wonderland deck called The Wonderland Tarot, which consists of illustrations based on Sir John Tenniel’s artwork in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Essentially, if the art was what bothered you before, there’s now likely a design that will capture your attention and help you get comfortable with readings. If you’re interested in how readings work, well, here we go:

1. Know your symbols and principles

Decks are comprised of the minor arcana — with four suits including wands, swords, cups, and pentacles — and the major arcana, made up of cards and symbols that represent principles, concepts and ideals, like The Fool, or The Lovers.

The minor arcana represent smaller aspects of life, like day-to-day things (i.e. How will my day go?). The major arcana cards ultimately represent strong, long-term energy, or big events in life (i.e. How will this breakup affect how I handle relationships in the future?).

2. Reading types

There are two different types of readings: question readings and open readings.

In question readings, you ask a specific, open-ended question that can’t be answered with a yes or a no. While tarot cards can’t make decisions for you, they’re a useful way to guide you to figure out what decisions you want to make for yourself. And how you frame a question becomes so important.

As for open readings, you would think of a situation you want clarity on and then choose cards, the symbolism of which can help you figure out how to move forward.

Additionally, how you draw your cards depends on which tarot spreads you’re following. Tarot spreads are a guide for how many tarot cards you draw and where you will place them.

For example, one popular tarot spread is the three card draw: situation, action, outcome. There’s also the Celtic cross, which is ten cards in the shape of a cross. Knowing your spread is important because the position of the card can change the meaning.

Tarot ultimately allows us to unmuddy the waters of our minds and affirm our hunches. It helps sharpen our intuition and guide us through whatever it is we’re going through in life. As Tea describes: At the end of the day, tarot can be an incredible, accessible tool for providing people with clarity.

“Life is nothing but change, and the Tarot illustrates this in a beautiful way and I think can demystify the ups and downs of our own lives,” Tea says. “It by no means makes our life safer or without hardship or challenge, but it gives us a place to bring our concerns and receive some direction, some validation, and maybe some hope.”

For Jones Wall, too, tarot is a reminder that life is a rich tapestry. “It also reminds me of the wonder and beauty and magic that exist in the world, of the good things that I often overlook when things get hard.”

And it’s the same for me. Tarot is absolutely about hope and joy. It’s a tool I can use to help me reassess my thoughts, feelings, and actions, and ultimately remind me that nothing is fixed. My behaviors, beliefs, and the outcomes to situations are ever-changing, based on how I handle them, and how I choose to grow as a person. That’s a beautiful thing.

Elly is a New York-based writer, journalist, and poet who also loves to host parties for her friends. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here or follow her on Twitter.