- Adverse childhood experiences, understandably, can numb feelings, including spiritual feelings.
- Once healing has progressed, spirituality can often be successfully cultivated.
- Cultivating spirituality can result in improved psychological and physical health.
Trauma therapist Ed Tick (2005) wrote that post-traumatic stress disorder is best understood as a soul wound. While many feel that surviving childhood adversities has strengthened them spiritually, others feel that their soul has been shattered (Schiraldi, 2016) and that they are numb and no longer able to enjoy spiritual feelings.
However, once the hidden wounds from ACEs have been adequately healed and emotional numbing thaws, those who are so inclined might again wish to cultivate satisfying spiritual feelings. This article is for those, at any level of spiritual development, who might be interested in ways to strengthen their spirituality and nourish their souls.
What Is the Soul?
Some have described the soul as the deepest part of us, the part that feels the deepest feelings of the heart, such as peace, love, joy, and awe. The soul responds to tenderness, kindness, beauty, and innocence. It is where the sense of inner worth, goodness, and the hope for a better tomorrow reside. (For example, see Singer, 2007; Vaillant, 2008.)
Benefits of Spirituality and Religious Involvement
Some distinguish spirituality—the search for meaning, the sacred, and something beyond the self— from religious involvement (beliefs and practices that foster greater spirituality). Yet abundant research shows that people who are spiritual, religious, or both enjoy on average greater well-being, such as being happier, more resilient, physically and emotionally healthier, higher in self-esteem, more satisfied in marriage, and less likely to engage in self-harming behaviors (Koenig, King, and Carson, 2012).
In the research, religious practice is often operationalized as attending worship services, praying, reading sacred writings, striving to live ethically and charitably, and involvement in a supportive religious community. Beneficial beliefs include feeling that one is strengthened by, comforted by, or collaborating with a kind higher power. Most world religions promote themes associated with well-being, such as the infinite worth of souls, love, forgiveness, compassion, altruism, solace in trials, meaning and purpose, ethical living, personal growth, and the perspective that there is an end to suffering and an answer for guilt.
Care for the Soul
Following are five strategies that might help to cultivate spirituality.
- Challenge unworkable assumptions, such as, “My suffering is evidence that God doesn’t love me.” Since everyone suffers, this logic would suggest that no one is divinely loved. Or, “A loving God would not permit suffering.” As Benjamin Franklin said, “That which hurts instructs.” Some lessons are only learned, some strengths are only discovered, and some forms of compassion and empathy are only acquired through hard times. Suffering is not all bad. Another unworkable thought is “My mistakes make me worthless and unforgivable.” Spiritual resilience, however, includes the understanding that no one is irredeemable. Everyone has the right to try again. We can learn from our mistakes and start anew. The growth process starts one step at a time.
- Don’t let feeling different keep you from religious/spiritual involvement. It is common and understandable for trauma survivors to feel different from others, especially if we erroneously assume that we are the only ones who have experienced what we have. Some in a religious community might not relate to your experiences. On the other hand, others might prove to be kind, understanding, and supportive friends. European researchers found that support from a religious community was more satisfying than support from sports, books, or political clubs. Give friendships time to develop and don’t be too concerned with what others might be thinking. Some might feel compassion for what you’ve been through and admiration for what you’ve survived.
- Spend time in meditation, perhaps reflecting on being in the presence of a spiritual being who understands your pain and imperfections, but loves you completely. You might imagine a pure embrace by that being. Take your time.
- Ponder spiritual or religious practices that might nourish your soul. These might include reading sacred writings for a few minutes a day in nature or a quiet place in your home, praying, joining a faith community, journaling your pain and giving it up to a higher power, or serving others.
- Consider the gifts or talents that you have that might bring joy to others. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t possess some unique strengths. I recall a simple, uneducated woman in inner-city Baltimore who lovingly fostered 40 children and helped some of their mothers relieve the heavy burden of guilt they were carrying.
At a leadership conference, I met Joyce Phillip, Chief Human Resource Officer at a large university. I was struck by the dignity and peace that she exuded. Her grandfather was a slave who ran away and joined the Union Army. Joyce lost her mother when she was fifteen months old, and her father was not a good role model. However, she said that her faith and the supportive, small-town community in which she grew up gave her much strength through her years of working her way up the corporate ladder. There were times when she had to walk away from anger over the racial divide. Yet she realized that animosity enslaves all who hold it and chose to overcome racial animosity by befriending all people. She and her husband felt that there was something they were sent to bring to this earth. Indeed, her adversities taught her much that made her useful, especially with her spiritual perspective that honors and respects each person’s value.
Interviews with many people like Joyce, including WWII combat survivors, rape survivors, and Navy SEALS, have led me to conclude that wholesome spirituality is a wellspring that can profoundly strengthen people to get through the most difficult times in life. Like happiness and health, however, spirituality doesn’t usually fall in our laps. Rather, it is usually nourished through persistent efforts over the years. Those efforts can start at any time.
The next post will address restoring balance by weaving joy into your life.
Schiraldi, G. R. (2021). The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Koenig, H., King, D. E., and Carson, V. B. (2012). Handbook of Religion and Health, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Singer, M. A. (2007). The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Tick, E. War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Wheaton, IL: Quest.
Vaillant, G. E. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway.