Clinicians who work with trauma know that one of the fundamental treatment issues is processing feelings of loss. The experience of loss can permeate clients’ lives and often manifests through grief, sadness, or rage. Whether it’s the loss of innocence, boundaries, privacy, protection, trust, secure attachment, or power and control over their own bodies, trauma takes away critical developmental and emotional experiences that are necessary for ego strengthening, relationship building, and a fundamental sense of being safe in the world. In addition, as a byproduct of trauma, abuse, or neglect, many victims experience a loss of faith. It’s not unusual for survivors to feel ignored or betrayed by a higher power. This is magnified when, tragically, the perpetrator is a clergy member and finds ways to “justify” sexually abusing or emotionally exploiting their victims by weaving religious rituals or distorted liturgy into the abuse.
Therapists who have encountered this issue in their work have witnessed clients’ legitimate outrage when they ask, “Where was G-d when I was being harmed?” “How could G-d have allowed this to happen to me?” or “How can there possibly be a God when evil exists in the world?” These questions are painful for clients, and oftentimes they are too embarrassed to initiate a discussion with therapists. And those existential questions are certainly challenging for therapists, particularly if they have their own unresolved issues about religious observance or a higher power. Aside from pastoral counselors, most clinicians get little or no training in the connection between psychotherapy and spirituality. Many therapists are afraid to even broach the subject for fear that it will offend their clients or come across as promoting a specific religious point of view.
“Incorporating spirituality into trauma treatment has been shown to dramatically increase sustained healing in trauma survivors…”
However, the research shows that assessing and exploring clients’ religious and spiritual beliefs and practices should be an integral part of the treatment process as it significantly contributes to their thoughts, feelings, behavioral choices, core philosophies, and world views. It’s important to know whether or not spirituality, prayer, religious rituals or writings play a role in client’s lives. If they do they can absolutely play a role in their healing; and if trauma has robbed them of faith, that’s worth processing in therapy as well. Therapists can respectfully explore these issues without imposing their own personal beliefs or practices onto their clients. Since incorporating spirituality into trauma treatment has been shown to dramatically increase sustained healing in trauma survivors as well as providing them with a powerful resource for comfort, soothing and connection, it’s important for therapists to increase their own comfort level and invite an exploration of spirituality, faith, and religious observance into the therapy room. This will not only benefits clients, it just might have a positive impact on therapists’ sense of faith and hope — two essential ingredients that help prevent clinician burnout and keep alive the belief that even the most traumatized clients can truly heal.
Have you incorporated spirituality into treatment for your trauma clients? Please share your insights and experiences.