Does Spirituality Belong in Therapy?

Some therapists are hesitant to include spirituality in their practice.

But if it can calm worries and lower stress, wouldn’t we want to integrate it into practice?

Psychologist David Rosmarin, PhD headed up a research team at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital to study how spirituality and belief impact worry and doubt.

They conducted two studies I think you might find interesting.

spirituality heals worry and stress

The first gathered responses from 332 subjects from Jewish and Christian faiths. They were asked to rate their level of trust in a Judeo-Christian God who looks out for them, their level of worry, and how tolerant they were of uncertainty.

Participants who had higher trust in a caring God reported lower levels of worry and more openness to uncertainty.

Because you can’t randomly assign subjects to different beliefs, we can only draw correlational conclusions and thus, cannot determine causality.

The second study was a bit more clever. Instead of comparing individuals by their current beliefs, researchers randomly assigned participants to one of three groups: a spiritually integrated treatment (SIT) group, a progressive relaxation group, and a wait-list control group.

The SIT program consisted of daily teachings and spiritual exercises designed to increase trust in God and decrease mistrust. The progressive relaxation group was taught how to systematically relax their bodies, and the waitlist group received no intervention of any kind.

Before the intervention, researchers tested the groups for trust in God, worry, intolerance to uncertainty, and stress. After the two week intervention the SIT group had significantly higher levels of trust and lower levels of intolerance, worry, and stress.

On the other side of the spectrum, participants who mistrusted God exhibited higher levels worry, stress, and more intolerance to uncertainty.

These results help us understand one way spirituality might have real-world implications.

Dr. Rosmarin commented on the findings, saying that this data could help motivate practitioners to take their patients’ spiritual beliefs into account.

You can find the entire study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

The evidence suggests that spirituality may have a larger role in healing than previously thought. If we know how to incorporate it, spirituality may be a key factor in improving patient outcomes.

The future of this kind of research is absolutely fascinating. I’d love to see a next step that looks at whether practices like SIT have any direct health effects, like reduced hypertension or lowered inflammation, for instance.

Realizing the potency of spirituality for healing was one of the main motivators behind NICABM’s webinar series on Spirituality in Healing.

That’s why we gathered the world’s top experts on spirituality.

To access the webinars, all you have to do is sign up.

Have you ever incorporated your patient’s spiritual or religious beliefs to help them heal or cope with a difficult situation? Do you think spirituality has a place in treatment? Please leave a comment below.

 

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29 Comments

  1. Nash says:

    At last some rattanoliiy in our little debate.

  2. What you are calling spirituality is actually religion which is emphasizing God as outside of the Self. Believing in a God figure that has our best interests in mind is a projection of the parent figure onto God. This leads to an if/then experience: if I just believe, I will be kept safe by this all-loving parent figure outside of Self. I suggest you study Carl Jung who has a healthier approach to spirituality and does not set people up for the if/then wounding experience. Spirituality empowers the individual to trust their own Soul, the deeper experiences of the psyche, their own truths, their own stirrings. We dis-empower people with religion and set them up for wounding, shameful experiences if the desired result does not magically appear.

    • Linda LMHC, Brandon Fl says:

      Agreed. Religion dis-empowers people by teaching them that they need an invisible-friend to depend on. It’s childish and harmful. Christians are obsessed about shoving their god beliefs onto others. How would you feel if your counselor started telling you that you need Zeus to feel better? Keep your beliefs to yourself, and accept the client with whatever beliefs they bring the table.

  3. Jean Howson says:

    Because I am trained as a pastoral counsellor, I frequently incorporate clients’ spiritual beliefs in helping them cope with difficulties. Couples, in particular, are helped to see beyond their problems with the relationship when they bring their faith into the office. Many are able to broaden the narrow lens through which they have been perceiving their partners and when they do this, real positive change can take place.

  4. Just in passing I would like to add: all the preceding comments on this page (the ones preceding mine) hold a piece of the puzzle of what actually SPIRITUALITY is! Believing is but a small part of this and as long as we do not put it all together so that all of us can agree, the word Spirituality will not be pointing to what it actually is. And we will miss the beauty of the TRANSFORMATIONAL DEMANDS that lie inside and beyond the word. To be SPIRITUAL is not to BE RELIGIOUS. He who is spiritual lives to awaken and awakens to live. He who is religious remains comfortably or uncomfortably asleep and dreams. We should really get together to standardize the definition of Spirituality, Religiousness, Mysticism, Mystery, to awaken, to sleep, Righteousness, Conscientiousness (among other terms). Sincerely from Lima Peru in Chosica. If you wish check out http://www.theisysmodel.blogspot.com / I seldom visit here so if you wish to write to me do so here labriego@ec-red.com

  5. Dawn Baker says:

    The control group was not equivalent to the treatment one. In one group, psychological issues (many masked as spiritual), were discussed which allowed the individual to review their inner maps. A relaxation group is not an adequate control. I’d like to see the other group discuss values, clarification in what we can and can’t trust, without any ‘higher power’, except their own value set. I’ve done lots of values clarification work, including especially forgiveness. I think Australia is much more secular. I couldn’t talk with people about ‘trusting god’, as I don’t believe in one, or that such an entity can be trusted. Life is a mixture of luck and management; luck to be born in a Western country and management in soothing our normal anxieties, and gaining a perspective.

    • Dawn Baker says:

      I kept a gratitude diary for 12 yrs and now have similar things on my iPhone. I love music, poetry, painting, photography as well as clear thinking. My gratitude is toward my good fortune, and the sheer beauty of my surrounds, the stars and nature generally. So, whilst I this list, I’m the hard-ass, my general demeanor is one of wonder. This of course has been enhanced by digital photography.

      • Ross says:

        What is the essence that allows all these things to happen? It seems people have a view of God as something different from things such as mother nature or our conscience, yet this essence is in everything so it is our own prejudices stop us exploring it deeper. Spiritually all religions are saying the same thing yet many people get stuck in the mundane view of religious “rules” rather than to see the spiritual truth in the teachings. Many give their opinion of religion, God, spirituality, the meaning of life without ever having properly explored it. I, know from my own experience that there is a spiritual truth that is actually very simple yet I had no comprehension of it prior to studying and practising it and being guided by righteous people.

  6. The older I get and the more daily miracles I experience I firmly believe we treat them, God cures them !!

  7. Jonathan says:

    Does spirituality have a place in treatment? I would say yes and make a distinction between spirituality and religion. Interesting that the first study was with people who were from Jewish and Christian faiths, because my immediate response to this was that this study has equated spirituality with religious faith and in this case only those with a Jewish or Christian faith.

    In my experience, spirituality transcends religion and doesn’t require someone to be part of a religious faith nor does it require them to ” believe in a God.” As I understand it, spirituality has to do with the experience of knowing that there is something greater than ourselves that we can directly access through some form of prayer or meditation along with as many other ways as there are human beings on the planet. Religions can provide a structure and framework to access our spirituality, yet they aren’t the spiritual since someone who may be more scientifically minded and not religious at all can be just as spiritual and perhaps more so than someone who practices a certain religious path.

    If spirituality connects us to the experience that allows us to know we are all interconnected and a part of a greater whole by whatever name we call it, then it clearly has a place in treatment. In the work that I do with clients, anything that offers them strength, hope or a way of understanding their presenting issue(s) that provides the possibility for healing seems vital to the therapeutic experience. As I see it, spirituality can provide this for the clients who are already on their chosen spiritual path or open to exploring what this might mean for them as it relates to their healing and wholeness.

    • V. Shrinivas Murthy says:

      Very well put. Why bias the research on spiritual path and experience with religious belief. There are two paths and they may have the same destination but the landscape is certainly different as we embark on the journey. I am Spiritual and practice religion with its rich rituals and the glue that binds different people with different faiths.

  8. I agree that wellness is a spiritual state. And, regardless of the symptoms presenting, if someone is alive, there is health present, wellness underlying illness, and part of our role may be to invite awareness of the health present. During crisis, healing trauma, or deepening tools for self-regulation, orientation to present time aliveness (in the midst of threat), to health (in the midst of ailments), to pleasure (in the midst of pain), brings home the experience that there exists in each of us much more than pain and illness. There is health present, and with it are sensations of goodness, safety, and wellness, even in the midst of everything else that is going on.

    What we practice grows stronger, and part of us has become adept at orienting to pain. What if we practice orienting to Health, Wellness, and the pleasure of being alive. What if, in time, there comes an awareness of the part of us that can orient to pleasure: awareness (being?)? What happens when that awareness can choose to what experience one will orient this moment? What if orientation to health grows stronger with practice? How is this not spirituality in action?

    To study embryogenesis, as a practitioner, may help to close the conceptual gap of our origins by opening our minds to wonder and awe: what causes the embryo to develop the way it does; what turns on genes? Such inquiry may help to open one to take the time to sit with your own heart and allow it to reveal to you your heart of hearts, your SA node, and perhaps through the portal of your SA node you may be able to touch the depths of potent stillness that is ever present, that preceded the impulse of that cardiac cell to beat; orient to the impulse; orient to what lies behind or before that impulse. If we slow down, and attend, what is already there? How does the human body not hold the keys to our spiritual origins?

    Orient your awareness from within your third ventricle, in the deep center of your brain, and notice with practice, what happens when you center there? Allow your nervous system to settle, and from a restorative state (however long it may take to come to rest), practice gentle awareness of the wave motion of your cerebrospinal fluid around your spinal column. Practice a more diffuse awareness, for a focussed awareness (the hunter) will activate the SNS and frighten the nature of your being into hiding. Once you are deeply at rest, the movement of the CSF will affect a slow motion movement of your sacrum and numerous structures in your cranium; notice the synchronization of the fluids in all your cells with the movement of the CSF. The CSF has more photons (light particles) than any other tissue in the human body. Marvel. When you have experienced these, then explain how it is we could ever keep spirit out of the room.

  9. Rev. Dr. Christine Bair says:

    Wellness is a spiritual state. Failure to include a patient’s spiritual beliefs (their context of meaning) is unethical and leads to incomplete and ineffective therapeutic encounters.

    • Deborah Hill says:

      Absolutely agree. Too often we hear of damage done to clients when anything relating to Spirit is introduced. Such nonsense, for I believe we ARE Spirit and that the cause of dis-ease is conscious separation from our Source, whatever that means to the individual. When I work with clients I allow them a sacred space whereby they can bring God out of the closet and exam their relationship with this Being, Deity, whatever that means too them, without judgment!

      Someone mentioned Jung. In his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul he talks about the need for the Doctor to go through his or her own self transformation to be of benefit to their client.

      Having been in a Spiritual practice for nearly 39 years come September, I have developed a deep and wonderful relationship with my God, and indeed this relationship informs my practice every time I walk into the consulting room. I need to know and be in alignment with all aspects of Self, Spirit, Mind and Body to be of real benefit to you.

    • Rev. Dr. Christine Bair says:

      Greg, YOU don’t have to find the path for them; in fact you can’t. It’s something you can help them explore as the safe space where they find meaning and validation. As they work with life issues, it is the spiritual component where meaning can be discovered in suffering. Redeeming it as having purpose completely changes the affective tone and is a key piece of healing often missing in conventional psychotherapy where changed behavior and thinking is helpful, but the unresolved emotional beliefs continue to cause distress. The remaining questions you ask are presented as ‘either/or’s; I wonder if it might not be more helpful to consider them as ‘both/and’s?

  10. Greg says:

    There is definitely room in the world for the inclusion of spirituality in therapy, how else can one heal both the body and the mind? The question is finding the best spiritual path for the person needing to be healed. Often I think we fall back on the religions of our parents without really taking the time to find what is most meaningful to ourselves.

    I wonder, if in having to undergo such therapy, depending on the injury or illness, does the recovery itself play into the deepening sense of belief and faith? Is it the healing that deepens the faith or the journey through the whole process from sickness to health that deepens it. Does it have to be only in the recovery?

  11. Great article. I agree that spirituality is a fascinating field and that therapists that are able to connect with their clients in a spiritual manner or at least see it as a possibility are better able to connect and heal. In many instances, I have witnessed firsthand that spiritual people are able to better heal and overcome painful situations once they have a strong spiritual base.

  12. Joel Chudnow says:

    Ruth,
    My case history and testimony of my experience practicing daily spiritual meditation proved to me that my edema-inflammation and pain vanished September 6, 1990! I’ll be happy to share the details with you. I am now in my 19th year of teaching and advocating wholistic wellness to adults 18-88 years old.

    There is no question in my mind that spirituality is a human’s first step to wholeness and wellness!

    • Ellen Cooper Phelps says:

      Please share!
      I also have witnessed and experienced similar healing- but ylur example sounds compelling.

  13. I distinguish among crisis management, inner healing, and transformation. After thirty years of full-time private practice I have concluded that spirituality is helpful, but not necessary, for crisis management and inner healing. Transformation, however, cannot take place without a belief in something greater than oneself–a higher power. Each of us must discern who or what we call our “higher power. For me personally, my higher power is the God of the Old and New Testament.

    • Counselor Bill says:

      Hi Dr. Cuje, I am wanting to start a private counseling practice like you have for the past 30 years. I will be taking my state license exam this fall. However, I would like to learn how to set up the legal aspects of my practice. I want to have an agency so I could receive public funds and third party insurance payments to provide life skill training and mental health counseling. Do I create a LLC or a 501C or both? Do you have any books or suggestions to refer me to?

  14. Emma Bragdon says:

    I believe spirituality is central to therapy and central to finding peace in this life. Spirituality can be many things: everything to do with the quest for meaning and purpose in life. As Rachel Remen said on your program, spirituality expresses itself through many positive feelings like awe, wonder, gratefulness, possibility, positivity. How can anyone overcome anxiety and depression and stress without meaning and purpose in life? How can anyone truly be happy without the positive feelings listed above?
    I have been spending 6 months each year in Brazil since 2001, learning about spiritual practices for healing used in community centers and psychiatric hospitals for 100 years. I have been asked to publish chapters in medical school texts about what I learned–and have published books about it. Bringing spirituality into health care– and mental health especially- is not new in other parts of the world. It is just relatively new to our conversations in this country. Happily–there is now a good body of research that gives evidence to the healing potentials of spiritual practices and fellowship.

  15. Lisa Parsons says:

    As a stress management consultant in medical practices for many years, I have typically asked clients what significance their religion or spirituality plays in their life and if they wish to include it in the work we do together. If they answer affirmatively, I ask for a brief overall description of what they believe, how that effects them in their everyday life and how their beliefs effect the way they see the world. It’s always a very interesting discussion and the feedback is usually very positive that the questions by themselves have helped the person go deeper into a realization that their own beliefs around spirituality greatly effect their lives, their choices, their emotions, and their health. The ones who decide to include it in our work together seem to generally resolve issues at a deeper level of understanding and describe their observed changes in terminology that implies longer lasting, total integration. Another thing I have found extremely interesting, is that many who describe their religious beliefs including a very judgmental component that envision a future of torturous eternity when asked how they experience ‘God” when in personal deep prayer have still always felt only unconditional, all-loving experience. When this has been realized it seems to bring great relief and peace.

    • Leslie says:

      Lisa, you sound like a very wise professional. I like how you ask about the clients beliefs and how they help them personally. They are currently in a very emotionally vulnerable position. Unfortunately, when I recently went to a sermon about judgment/eternity, I have been so depressed since I only want to lie flat, crying. Several of my relatives who didn’t share my beliefs have passed on and I worry about them. As you mentioned, some people believe this and still feel an unconditional, loving experience. I feel much better when I concentrate on a merciful God. Do you have any words of healing for me? Thanks, Leslie

      • Souma says:

        Science ONLY deals with observable, veflriabie things. You can’t “test” spirituality; it’s a manmade construct.It’s like asking whether you can test for evidence of “government.”References :

      • Vlad says:

        Andrea, THANK YOU so much for these words of wisdom today! I have gone thorugh many ups and downs (and money!) in my past business, and would SO love to have heard a talk or video as yours, back then. Unfortunately, I gave up, and am starting something new, something absolutely different now. THIS time, I feel it’s right, and this time I DO BELIEVE in myself and what I’m doing.Sending you blessings for continued success Cheron.

  16. I love your programs and as I retire from the military am looking forward to being able to view them on a regular basis.

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