Antipathy between psychology and spirituality has been around for a long time. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, characterized religion as a “mass delusion”. Such poses have recently been softened as scientific evidence for the health benefits of exercises such as prayer and meditation. But the mistrust remains.
“There is a gap in religiosity between psychologists and the general population,” said David Lukoff, a clinical psychologist. While mental health professionals are often uncomfortable with the subject, with which they have little personal experience, more than half patients are interested in spiritually integrated therapy.
That can be a challenge. Only a quarter of psychologists and psychiatrists are trained to meet clients’ spiritual needs, according to Lukoff, who recently helped develop a program to promote “spiritual competencefor therapists, including classes on mindfulness, self-compassion, forgiveness, and mystical experience. He says spiritual techniques can be especially helpful when individuals struggle with deep existential questions.
“When people moan and ask, ‘God, why are you doing this to me? Why is there suffering in the world? What is the meaning and purpose of life?’ — that’s not a psychological problem. It’s a spiritual battle,” said Eric J. Hall, a Presbyterian pastor and president of the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network, a non-profit pastoral service that works in hospitals and other health care facilities.
Our spiritual struggles can lead to tremendous personal growth, Rev. Hall noted. “But when the struggle deepens without the ability to handle it, people’s health often deteriorates.”
Research shows that mental distress increases rates of heart disease and other ailments, as well as anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, he said.
The regular care organizations have taken note. 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 advised that physicians should provide a spiritual care plan as part of their treatment for patients.
Spiritual care does not mean solving one’s problems for him, Russell Siler Jonesexplained the director of CareNet/Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Residency in Psychotherapy. “You don’t have to have the answers, just be willing to join people in battle,” he said.
Jones, a Baptist minister, often asks those who come to him for therapy, ‘Where do you draw your strength? What gives you hope?’ With religious clients, he can have them talk about their prayer life, or ask when they feel most connected to God.
But for many, their spirituality may have little to do with organized religion, he noted.
Kenneth PargamentProfessor Emeritus of Psychology at Bowling Green State University who actively researches the link between spirituality and health, recalls working with a man who was not religious. “I felt quite frustrated,” Pargament said. “He was deeply depressed. I couldn’t find a way to generate any spark or enthusiasm in his life.” Then he asked Joe if there had ever been a time when he was just happy to be alive.
‘You lit up. He told me he had been a fighter jet pilot. He said, ‘Man if you cut through the air with that thing, you can touch the face of God!’ ‘ Pargament recalled. “We talked about what it’s like to fly and the skills that come with it and how he could use those skills in his life to become more assertive, more of a man of taking charge. The therapy involved bringing him – literally and figuratively – back into the cockpit of his life.”
Another client suffered from advanced HIV/AIDS. She felt despondent and considered not undergoing kidney dialysis as a way to die. Pargament suggested another option. “You’ve lost a lot,” he said, “but you can still have sacred moments in your life by being with those you love and helping others.”
In the end, she decided to go on dialysis and, Pargament said, became “a wonderful patient advocate for others in the rehab facility, laughing with them, helping and nurturing them.” She lived another three years with a newfound sense of spiritual purpose.
“We’re not just shaped by our genetics or our larger environment,” explains Pargament. “We are also purposeful beings who seek deep meaning and purpose in our lives.”
“The term ‘spiritual’ is often associated with religion, but I don’t use it that way,” explains Steve Taylor, a psychology professor at Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom. “Spiritual awakening is simply a shift into a more expanded state of consciousness.” Many people today are undergoing this shift, he said, but added that adjusting to a radically new outlook on life can be disorienting.
The first step in spiritual therapy, Taylor says, is for clients who open up to their greater possibilities to know that they are going through a natural process and not going crazy. “I actually don’t think therapists need to do much,” he said. “Once a person understands and accepts himself, his spirituality will take care of itself.”