Written by Jamian Coleman, Don Davis, Dennis Gilbride, Aaron McLaughlin, Mary Chase Mize, Laura Shannonhouse, Kyndel Tarziers and Galina Tobin
Department of Counseling and Psychological Services
We wear two hats – we are both scientists and counselors – and as such, we are struck by our clients’ use of religion/spirituality as part of coping with suffering. People tend to turn to their faith to make sense of suffering; however, not all of the meaning that people find through their faith is helpful.
Spirituality involves a person’s sense of closeness or connection with the sacred. In theistic religions, the sacred might be God, Jesus or Allah. In other spiritual groups, it might be nature, all of humanity or the cosmos. Religion often refers to a cultural tradition that provides people with ways of understanding and relating to the sacred. So, it provides cultural structures that help preserve and carry forward the groups’ way of life.
Clinically, we are interested in our client’s growth and recovery; as researchers, we are interested in understanding how people best grow through adversity so we can wrap that into best practices in counseling and therapy. There is growing literature that shows religious involvement is associated with desirable mental health outcomes; however, it isn’t how religious or spiritual you are – it is how you use your faith at times of suffering that count.
There are three theories that help us understand why people might turn to religion/spirituality during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Attachment Theory: According to attachment theory, humans have a basic need for security and closeness. We are born with a system that regulates physical proximity and emotional connection with parents (or parent-like social bonds). Infants are quite vulnerable, so it is good for the infant to stay near and bond with parents. Likewise, it is quite good for humans to take care of their young ones. When parents are responsive to the child’s needs, the child learns they are safe and secure. The parent-child relationship emerges from these interactions, and influences subsequent development, and also ways in which the child later engages with others. When people experience deep trust in relationships – mentors, romantic partners, a counselor or even the sacred – then they can form a stronger foundation of trust. Similar to the perceived emotional bond between a caregiver and an infant, people have a perceived emotional bond with the sacred and the defining features of attachment, including proximity seeking, safety and comfort, and a secure base. For instance, prayer or knowledge of God’s presence enables humans to approach adversity with security and courage.
- Stress and Coping Theory: According to this theory, the degree of stress someone experiences depends on how they interpret or appraise an event. There are two key appraisals. First, people judge how threatening a situation is; the more threatening, the more they feel stressed. Second, they judge if they have the resources to deal with the stressor. Feeling unable to deal with a stressor amplifies distress. Once people feel stressed, they may try to cope directly with the problem, known as problem-focused coping. People may also employ emotion-focused coping, or doing things to regulate the negative feelings associated with the distress. Religion can provide resources for coping at any of these levels. For example, if they have a sense of protection from God, then they may appraise less threat. Some people use internalized prayer to ask for courage, strength, to be who we need to be for our loved one, or for the doctors treating one’s loved ones. Listening closely to our client’s prayers provides us information on how they are viewing the adversity and the resources they have to deal with it. Religious communities can provide help for the problem at hand (through a meal or money) and offer social support, which has been affiliated with positive psychological outcomes (i.e. reduced depression, anxiety and PTSD post disaster). Also, they provide ways of transforming the meaning of the stressor, taking a broader perspective that helps put into a redemptive narrative, which we know is the key to healing.
- Existential Theory: Religion is uniquely helpful for some stressors, according to this theory. Humans are unique compared to other animals because they can imagine their future. This has lot of advantages, but at least one absolutely terrifying disadvantage: We realize we will die. This fear would be debilitating, but humans also developed a cultural worldview that mitigates this fear and restores a sense of security. They assume an afterlife or provide symbolic ways that a person can live on so that death is not as it seems.
As counselors, we listen to our clients tell us their stories and we use our knowledge from scholarship and theory to see their internal world so that we can empathize with the content of their pain and the process they’re using to make sense of suffering. If we do our job well, we gain a sense of what their life looks like from their point of view.
When we imagine their world, doing so brings us face-to-face with any existential pain that we carry. To help, we must say to ourselves first, “Hope is possible.” This is hard to offer if we have not owned it ourselves. Do we trust ourselves to sit with the client’s memories and experience, knowing what we may feel? Do we know what it is like to form new memories from the ashes of a loss? The process is like digging up a seed and planting it again.
Our group is learning to become better acquainted with religious pain and help others to do so as well. We each saw our clients’ religious pain and we realized that our primary job was to avoid the urge to ignore it or look away. To do so would be to neglect our primary post. We’re working on figuring all of this out together. We remind ourselves of five things as we do this work:
- Our clients have the courage to connect with their pain, so we must share in their courage to do our own work and develop within ourselves a capacity to hear their stories without looking away or turning aside.
- Science has certainly bolstered our resolve. Over the past 30 years, there are two lines of evidence that help us fix our eyes. First, religious community (and something that happens within) gives people refuge, which translates into health and mental health outcomes. Second, we know there is a dark side and that there is no pain like religious pain. The exclusion that some experience in religious community, and ruptures of faith, can cause distress. Without question, we know that moral injuries put soldiers at higher risk of suicide, and that existential ruptures will shorten someone’s lifespan if not resolved due to chronic stress.
- Our theories can help us as long as we resolve to keep moving towards our clients. They can give us a reminder and a map. In the process of entering the clients’ internal world, when we get deep into our own fears mixed with the clients’ fears, they remind us of the potential for hope and a redemptive process. Our stories can remind us that all of this is terrible and normal, just like death is terrible and normal.
- We are cultivating curiosity and intellectual humility. We are trying to learn from each other and encourage each other. We ask a lot of questions and do our best to form hypotheses, but we hold them lightly.
- Ultimately, we all know that our day of testing will come. We all will have harrowing days sitting with our clients. Because we are all lucky enough to live this life, we also know we will have our own portion of harrowing days and sleepless nights. As counselors, our highest striving is to be a source of refuge and in a paradoxical turn of fate, our capacity to do that job depends on our own courage to find our own sources of refuge. When we can recognize our own yearning to be deeply and effectively loved, then we can hear its protest in our clients and maybe we’ll plant our feet and stand with them without turning away.