More and more psychotherapists are integrating religion into their practices
The antipathy between psychology and spirituality is old. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, called religion a “mass delusion”. Such attitudes have softened recently as scientific evidence of the health benefits of practices such as prayer and meditation mounts. But mistrust persists.
“There is a religiosity gap between psychologists and the general population,” said clinical psychologist David Lukoff. While mental health professionals are often uncomfortable with the topic, on which they have little personal experience, more than half of patients are interested in spiritually integrated therapy.
It can be a challenge. Only a quarter of psychologists and psychiatrists have been trained in how to meet clients’ spiritual needs, according to Lukoff, who recently helped develop a program to promote “spiritual skillfor therapists, which includes classes on mindfulness, self-compassion, forgiveness, and mystical experience. He says spiritual techniques can be especially helpful when individuals are grappling with deep existential questions.
“When people moan and ask, ‘My God, why are you doing this to me? Why is there suffering in the world? What is the meaning and purpose of life?’ — it’s not a psychological issue. It’s a spiritual struggle,” said Eric J. Hall, Presbyterian pastor and president of the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, a nonprofit chaplaincy service that works in hospitals and other health care facilities.
Our spiritual struggles can lead to tremendous personal growth, Reverend Hall observed. “But when the struggle escalates without the ability to treat it, people’s health often deteriorates.”
Research shows that spiritual distress increases rates of heart disease and other conditions, as well as anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, he said.
Traditional healthcare organizations have taken notice. A new diagnostic category, “Religious or spiritual problem”, was added to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) in 1994. In 2016, the American Medical Association informed that physicians should provide a spiritual care plan as part of their treatment for patients.
Spiritual accompaniment does not mean solving someone’s problems for them, Russell Siler Jones, explained the psychotherapy residency director of CareNet / Wake Forest Baptist Health. “You don’t need to have the answers, just be ready to stand with people in the fight,” he said.
Jones, a Baptist pastor, often asks those who come to see him for therapy, “Where do you get your strength from? What gives you hope? “With religious clients, he can have them talk about their prayer life or ask them when they feel most connected to God.
For many, however, their spirituality may have little to do with organized religion, he noted.
Kenneth Pargament, professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University who continues to actively research the connection between spirituality and health, recalls working with a man who was not a believer. “I felt pretty frustrated,” Pargament said. “He was deeply depressed. I couldn’t find a way to generate any spark or excitement in his life. Then he asked Joe if there had ever been a time when he was just glad to be alive.
“Joe lit up. He told me he had been a jet pilot. He said, ‘man when you cut the sky with that thing, you can touch the face of God!’ “recalled Pargament. “We talked about what it was like to fly and the skills involved and how he could use those skills in his life to become more assertive, more of a take charge. The therapy was to bring him – literally and figuratively – back into the cockpit of his life.
Another client had advanced HIV/AIDS. Feeling discouraged, she considered not having kidney dialysis as a way to die. Pargament suggested another option. “You’ve lost a lot,” he said, “but you can still experience sacred moments in your life by being with those you love and helping others.”
Ultimately, she decided to have dialysis and became, Pargament said, “a wonderful patient advocate for others in the rehab center, laughing with them, helping them and nurturing them.” She lived another three years with a renewed sense of spiritual purpose.
“We are not just shaped by our genetics or our larger environment,” Pargament explained. “We are also goal-oriented creatures who seek deep meaning and purpose in our lives.”
“The term ‘spiritual’ is often associated with religion, but that’s not how I use it,” said Steve Taylor, professor of psychology at Leeds Beckett University in the UK. “Spiritual awakening is simply a shift to a more expansive state of consciousness.” Many people are going through this change today, he said, but added that it can be disorienting to adjust to a radically new outlook on life.
The first step in spiritual therapy, Taylor says, is for clients who are opening up to their greatest possibilities to know that they are undergoing a natural process and not going insane. “I don’t really think therapists need to do much,” he said. “Once a person understands and accepts himself, his spirituality will take care of itself.”