Is Spiritual Coping in Your Toolkit?

An interview with Dr. Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso on spiritual coping & resilience

Posted Feb 19, 2019

Today we continue the series of interviews with experts on how resilience—one of the major themes of my book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience—connects to their area of study.

Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso, used with permission
Source: Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso, used with permission

This interview is on the subject of spiritual coping and resilience, and for this one I talked with Dr. Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso. She is an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and has published in the areas of psychology & religion (including religious coping and spiritual struggles), virtues (including intellectual humility, gratitude, and forgiveness), and prostitution. She currently teaches courses in psychotherapy, family therapy, advanced research methodology, and psychology of religion.

JA: How do you personally define spiritual coping?

EM: Most people have a sense of what coping means: something along the lines of efforts to deal with a stressor. Most dictionaries indicate that coping involves facing a difficulty with some degree of success. Interestingly, in the empirical literature, coping efforts are often categorized as helpful or harmful, usually labeled as positive and negative coping, respectively. I define spiritual coping as any form of coping that incorporates what a person holds sacred. Spiritual coping can consist of behaviors (e.g., praying), but can also take the form of thoughts (e.g., remembering that God is by one's side through a crisis), feelings (e.g., experiencing emotional intimacy within one's religious community), or attitudes (e.g., trusting in a larger spiritual plan for one's life).

JA: How did you first get interested in studying spiritual coping?

EM: When selecting a graduate program, I looked for options where I could combine my interests in psychology, relationships, and religion. I found the clinical psychology graduate program at Bowling Green State University because that is where Ken Pargament was doing groundbreaking work on measuring religious coping. When I read about Annette Mahoney's work there, which combined the topics of religion/spirituality and family relationships, I knew she was the perfect fit for what I was seeking in a mentor. As a graduate student at BGSU, my first research project, under Annette's supervision, focused on examining religious and spiritual coping with divorce.

JA: What is the connection between spiritual coping and resilience?

EM: Resilience involves the capacity to rebound quickly following a disruption in life; in other words, it is the ability to return to normal or even thrive in the face of difficulties. Therefore, resilience is fundamentally linked to coping, which involves the many ways people respond to adversity in their efforts to rebound. Having a multitude and diversity of coping options within one's coping toolkit is particularly helpful for being resilient. Spiritual coping methods can expand a person's coping repertoire beyond their nonspiritual forms of coping.

Spiritual resources are uniquely suited to help people cope with life's most challenging problems. Ken Pargament (2007) has written about how the crises people face in life often raise profound existential questions about their place and purpose in the world, the limits of their control, and their finitude.1 Spiritual forms of coping may be able to address these deeper dimensions of a crisis in ways that nonspiritual forms of coping are not equipped. Empirical research has supported the fact that spiritual forms of coping account for unique variance above secular forms of coping when it comes to adjusting to stressors and even experiencing post-traumatic growth.

JA: What are some ways people might work through spiritual struggles?

EM: Spiritual struggles are complex because in a stress and coping model, spiritual struggles can be the stressor or the response to a stressor. That is, spiritual struggles, such as a faith crisis, can be the initial source of a person's stress, or spiritual struggles can arise in response to another life stressor in the form of a problematic spiritual coping mechanism, such as passively waiting for God to resolve a problem rather than taking action when needed.

Spiritual struggles can be particularly challenging because the element of the sacred often adds a layer of intensity on top of the emotion and distress experienced surrounding non-sacred topics. In addition, people may feel guilty about experiencing spiritual questions, doubts, or conflicts, which can add an additional layer of distress on top of a spiritual struggle.

In response, helpful ways to work through spiritual struggles may include first coming to a place of acceptance about spiritual struggles. This can open the necessary space to explore and articulate spiritual struggles in a way that broadens and deepens people's spiritual resources and increases their emotional, behavioral, and spiritual flexibility in response to spiritual struggles (e.g., Dworsky et al., 2013).2

JA: Any advice for how we might support a friend or loved one struggling with spiritual struggles?

EM: One of the biggest challenges as a beginning clinician was learning that I couldn't rescue clients. I could guide them; I could support them; but I couldn't do the work for them. People often feel a similar responsibility for helping a friend or loved one who is in distress.

Helpers may feel an ultimate sense of urgency to help their loved one resolve the issue—even more so when struggles are of a spiritual nature. Responding with urgency is likely to compound stress, feelings of guilt, or stigma the loved one is experiencing. Therefore, one of the most helpful ways to respond is with an attitude of trust that the loved one is capable of working through the issue. This can de-escalate the initial distress and give the loved one the space and permission to wrestle with the spiritual issue. It also gives the supporter the permission to be a much-needed listening ear rather than feeling pressure to provide answers. It can be helpful to communicate to the loved one that spiritual struggles are normal, and that you're there as a support on his or her journey.

Finally, research shows that spiritual struggles can lead to personal as well as spiritual growth; therefore, there is room to experience and communicate hope, even when a loved one is in spiritual pain.

References

Pargament, K. I. (2007). Spiritually integrated psychotherapy: Understanding and addressing the sacred. New York: Guilford Press.

Dworsky, C., Pargament, K. I., Gibbel, M., Krumrei, E. J., Faigin, C., Haugen, M., & ... Warner, H. L. (2013). Winding road: Preliminary support for a spiritually integrated intervention addressing college students' spiritual struggles. Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, 24, 309-339. doi:10.1163/9789004252073_013