The ebbs and flows of life can take you through a roller coaster of emotions: from euphoric ‘highs’ to catastrophic ‘lows.’ How you handle these lows can play out in a multitude of ways. A support system is key for many people in difficult times, and this can include therapy.
While therapy can be an extremely beneficial system of support on its own, there’s an ever-growing body of research that says spiritual and religious practices can enhance the effectiveness of therapy.
“Psychologists are ethically obliged to be respectful and attentive to the cultural diversity of their clients, and religion and spirituality contribute to our personal and social identities,” writes Kenneth I. Pargament, PhD, a leader in the field of religion and mental health research.
“Finally, emerging research is showing that spiritually integrated approaches to treatment are as effective as other treatments. There is, in short, good scientifically based reason to be more sensitive to religion and spirituality in clinical practice.”
Many therapists agree with this sentiment and are careful to be open and supportive when it comes to a client’s religious or spiritual needs.
For instance, Megan Harrity, PhD, a licensed psychologist with the University of Notre Dame, creates an open space for religious or faith-based coping mechanisms in therapy sessions. She is an expert in areas such as self-worth, relationships, grieving, depression and anxiety, disordered eating, and sport and performance psychology.
“Some of what I have found and seen in research is that when people have maybe fewer resources to cope with when it comes to difficult or uncontrollable things happening in their lives, religion and spirituality can play a role in helping them move through adversity — whatever that may be,” Harrity says.
However, this isn’t something all psychologists are comfortable doing. For decades, researchers in the field of Psychology were apathetic toward religion, but Pargament says that no longer needs to be the case, and empirical evidence backs this up.
It turns out that religion and spirituality can actually aid many people in times of struggle, especially if their therapist is able to approach the topic in a sensitive and inviting way.
“Usually it’s opening the door by asking the question: to what extent is religion or spirituality important to you, and how does that factor in to what you’re going through?” Harrity explains. “Has there been a time in the past where you found faith, religion, spirituality, or a certain religious ritual helpful? How can we learn from that to help you with what you’re dealing with right now?”
Harrity says that this can be particularly important when it comes to forgiveness, either of yourself or others, which doing so can be an important part of overcoming mental and even physical struggles. Forgiveness can be an effective way of letting things go that are causing additional stress and, for many people, religious rituals and practices are a safe and important space in which many people can heal and/or forgive.
“For instance, if you’re Catholic, does going to confession help?” Harrity asks. For many, it does — and she encourages them to continue any practices that are aiding their recovery.
There are many other spiritual acts that help her clients, who are often students at the University. She says that the Grotto, a popular place for prayer on campus, can be a sacred space for many of them, so she encourages them to visit it.
However, there are also times when religion can create inner conflict.
“If somebody has gone through some sort of adverse event or through trauma, sometimes that impacts their relationship with God or how they are making sense of their faith or spirituality,” Harrity says. “It can sometimes create some inner conflict.”
That doesn’t mean people should abandon their faith in times of trouble. Instead, it points to why faith and therapy can go together hand-in-hand, because it’s important for everyone to understand that inner conflict rather than holding onto it and building resentment.
This is just something for the patient and therapist to be aware of when broaching the subject of spirituality, so that the patient ultimately come to a place where the patient can be at peace.
Some research also suggests that removing religion from otherwise spiritual practices such as meditation can actually make them less effective.
Over the years, meditation has become a popular way for people, both secular and religious, to improve their well-being.
“‘You don’t have to be religious to meditate’ has become a mantra in the literature,” Pargament says. “Research on these aspects of life has begun to yield vitally important psychological and social insights, with powerful implications for human change and growth. And yet something may be lost when these constructs are disconnected from their larger context.”
This is because there is some research that show that mantra-based meditation on a spiritual phrase is more effective than when it includes a secular phrase.
As more researchers study the effects of religion and spirituality on therapy, so too may therapists and psychologists utilize them in their practice. It’s interesting that in a field that was once led by people who had no interest in religion, it’s now being seen as a valuable tool when it comes to coping with difficult mental struggles. Like other sciences, this is an example of how they can work together.