- Across cultures and for centuries, people have embraced spirituality to cope with trauma and loss.
- Spirituality can be defined in terms of personal belief systems, meditative practices, or organized religion.
- Embracing spirituality in any form facilitates restoration and recovery after trauma.
There seems to be no end to war, terrorism, illness, and natural disasters. Such events call into question our sense of safety, control, mastery, and connection with others.
Over centuries and across cultures, we have faced these times by reaching for something beyond us to make meaning, reduce our terror, fuel our courage, and ease our pain; we have reached for God in unsafe places.
While we have no doubt witnessed and experienced terror and atrocity committed in the name of God, we have also seen the role that spirituality and religion can play in fostering resilience to cope with traumatic pain and loss.
Spirituality is one's personal sense or search for the sacred. For some, that means a belief in God, or Absolute Unity, or simply something beyond what can be known. In many cases, but not all, religiosity involves a commitment to an organized sacred institution with rituals, beliefs, and practices upheld by a community of believers.
Seeking Refuge-Building Resilience
In the aftermath of 9/11, many people flocked to their houses of worship. New York's Riverside Church could not accommodate its congregants, and spiritual caregivers of many faiths came together to consider how they could best serve people amind the trauma. In their study of resilience, Southwick, Chaney & DePierro underscore the value of religion and spirituality as important sources of strength. Referencing the resilience of prisoners of war from the Vietnam War, they report that “for many POWs and other trauma survivors, religion and spirituality, whether long-standing or newly found, played an essential role in their survival."
Judith Herman underscores that central to trauma is disempowerment and disconnection. A close look reveals that spirituality and religion facilitate the stages that we associate with restoration and recovery after trauma. These include establishing safety, remembering and mourning, and re-connection.
Establishing Safety: Physical and Psychological Factors
A Community of Believers
- In the acute stage of trauma, familiar networks serve to buffer the impact, re-form connections, and enhance a sense of safety. Such networks might include parents with their children, extended family, combat units, and faith-based communities.
- One aspect of the gathering of people at houses of worship after a traumatic event is connection with others who share a common belief system. The familiarity of the rituals, the prayers, and the service foster a sense of the known and safe.
- Given that trauma turns on our fight-or-flight reactions, an important benefit of being in a community with others is that connection helps reset body rhythms and soothes terror and grief.
- According to Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps Score, we can calm and retrain a hyperaroused nervous system by the way we breathe, chant, and move. Consider how many meditative and religious practices include these important dimensions.
Never Alone: A Buffer to Isolation and Despair
Even when alone, one can understand the experience of spirituality as primarily relational. It is a transcendent relationship with that which is sacred to the individual (Walsh, 2000). Turning to belief in God or a higher power in the face of trauma, loss, or suffering reduces the isolation endemic to trauma. No matter where you are, you have the feeling that you are never alone.
Coping With a Crisis of Faith
Often the moral injury or self–blame felt in the aftermath of a traumatic event, war, or disaster makes a person feel unworthy to access their faith: “How did I let this happen?” “I should have done something different.” Dan Morgan of Point Man Ministries advises veterans struggling with guilt: “Everyone else can forgive you, and now it is your turn to forgive yourself because God already has."
Remembering and Mourning
Central to coping in the aftermath of trauma and traumatic loss is narrating and transforming the speechless nightmare of traumatic assault into a story that can be told and empathically heard. Prayer is often the first step in this process. After he lost his two sons, Charlie Walton, author of When There Are No Words, reported that in the face of people not knowing what to do or say, he suggested they just hug and pray in their own way. Prayer not only reduces helplessness by giving you something to do; it gives you words that you now. It is often a way to hold on, a familiar step toward feeling re-connected with love.
Kristin Neff’s practice of mindful self-compassion offers an important meditative practice to relieve the despair, self-blame, and self-doubt often associated with traumatic events. She likens it to giving herself the loving and compassionate hug one might offer to another at painful times.
Trauma often leaves us in an unsafe place, estranged from self, family, and the future. In his description of the unconscious effects of trauma, Robert Stolorow describes this as the feeling of losing “one’s sense of being” or of needing “an emotional dwelling place” — someone to get it, somewhere to find oneself, to feel safe, and to be restored. In many forms, spirituality offers that home — through a bond with nature, a congregation of believers, a meditative practice, or a sense of the divine.