Spiritual Distress in the Wake of Trauma
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” The effects are long-lasting and might take the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating anxiety disorder characterized by symptoms such as nightmares, feelings of hyper-arousal and multisensory flashbacks reminiscent of the traumatic incident.
Nationally renowned trauma expert Christine Courtois, PhD, ABPP, refers to a certain form of PTSD as “post-traumatic spiritual distress.” In a recent presentation called Trauma Affects the Spirit: Spiritually-Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma, she discussed the intersection of psychological shock and spirituality. Her description of trauma calls it “an assault on the self of the individual,” especially child abuse, which she refers to as “soul murder” and says robs the survivor of a sense of safety and sovereignty.
Courtois referenced author and motivational speaker Bill O’Hanlon, who describes spirituality as having three components: connection with something bigger than the self, compassion and contribution. “Spirituality is a sense that there is something bigger going on in life,” O’Hanlon wrote in Solution-Oriented Spirituality: Connection, Wholeness and Possibility for Therapist and Client. “Religion, on the other hand, involves specific beliefs and practices.”
Spiritual faith helps many people cope with trauma, as well as maintain stability and sobriety. Prayer, meditation, contemplative reading and time in a house of worship can be therapeutic. Some people experience a renewal of purpose or even a new calling to be of service as a result of the challenges they’ve overcome.
Strength From “God-Wrestling”
Trauma can strengthen or weaken spiritual faith and mental health overall. It’s common for those who’ve been wounded by others’ actions or by happenstance to ask, “Why me?” They might feel victimized by a God who they feel didn’t protect them from assault or another form of loss, or perhaps was even punishing them for some perceived shortcoming. Redefining God and reframing circumstances is sometimes in order.
Spiritual teacher Ram Dass has said that after he experienced a debilitating stroke in 1997, he felt as if he’d fallen from his guru’s grace and protection, because he’d believed that his spiritual faith would keep him safe from tragedy. He came to recognize it as “fierce grace” that enabled him to persevere inhis recovery. Today, he continues to write and teach, mobile in his wheelchair.
Even the most faith-filled person questions the nature of reality. Sixteen years ago, a woman sat by her husband’s bedside in an inner-city intensive care unit as he was connected to life support, awaiting aliver transplant. She experienced what she called “God-wrestling” as she said, “He’s mine, and you can’t have him.” She heard a response as if someone was sitting next to her, speaking directly to her: “No,he’s mine, and he’s on loan to you, like everyone else in your life.” Today, she still counts this as a pivotal moment in her spiritual evolution. Rather than shaking her faith, the message strengthened her, even as she lost her husband to end-stage liver disease. As a result of that experience, she enrolled in seminary and became ordained as an interfaith minister.
Regaining a Connection to the Divine
What happens when someone’s beliefs are tested and they’re called on to do something that’s in opposition to their intrinsic values? In war zones, military personnel are faced with that question almost every moment. A patient who was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for severely impairing symptoms of PTSD that made him believe his house was under attack by the Viet Cong told his therapist that he’d entered the service as a medic. Through tears, he said, “I was a healer, and they turned me into a killer.” More than 30 years after the original trauma, he remained tortured by his memories and felt abandoned by God.
How can someone regain their connection to the Divine? Unless a client is in pastoral counseling, it’sunusual for the clinician to address spiritual matters. More professionals are wading into the spiritual waters, albeit cautiously, in some cases. If a client is accustomed to attending 12-step meetings, theconcept of God isn’t unfamiliar.
It’s important for the therapist to refrain from imposing their beliefs in the session. There are times when a client has been known to request that the counselor pray with them. When that’s happened, one particular therapist has said that she’d listen while the client offered whatever prayer was of comfort to them. Being a silent witness to another’s practice can be therapeutic. As is true for many spiritual seekers, the way isn’t always straightforward and takes courage to traverse.
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1