How Spirituality Affects Resilience
Spirituality can be a mental health resource or a barrier to resilience.
Posted March 12, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
Can we really talk about spirituality as if it has something to do with mental health? More and more, we are seeing that mental health and health professionals are being required by ethics to round out their approaches to client care by including spirituality in the equation. From a clinical perspective, spirituality can be considered to be a mental health resource. On the other side, an assessment of a client’s religious or spiritual experience can inform us of such things as spiritual or religious abuse, magical thinking or hyper-religiosity—which in some cases reaches all the way to delusion. To leave that assessment out of a well-rounded clinical assessment is to be misinformed about the client.
So, let’s talk about resilience and how it might be affected by one’s spirituality. As a mental health resource, a healthy spiritual life can be a major motivator, influencing how a person adjusts to life’s difficulties and even providing him or her with guidance for life’s decisions. Resilience demonstrates how well we adapt to difficult life challenges, such as illness, trauma, relationship problems, workplace issues or financial stressors. Those who have a deep spirituality and/or are in the process of developing one can show such resilience.
That does not mean that these folks don’t have significant emotional responses to tragic or challenging life circumstances—they do. But their spirituality provides them with succor and offers them some hope to get through. Even when life doesn’t make sense, their spirituality offers them a powerful resource to lean on until they can become grounded again in reality. They use all manner of spiritual tools, such as prayer, meditation, contemplation, reading sacred texts, yoga, seeking a spiritual director or a guru, and other such powerful tools to enhance and direct their experience.
On the other hand, sometimes people use spirituality or religion as a way of bypassing or repressing emotional responses. They believe or have been taught that they should not ever be upset, sad, angry, frustrated or have other difficult emotions—as these are “negative” and create a “negative” life experience. They believe or have been taught that they should always be grateful for everything and that any other emotion shows ingratitude. They believe or have been taught to always praise the Divine, and that to do less than that is to somehow betray the Spirit of the Divine. When we bypass or repress significant emotions, they sit there inside the psyche waiting for an opportunity, an opening to express—and when it comes out this way, it is often not pretty—which then means the person is likely to feel guilty and then push it back to repression yet again, only to repeat and repeat.
Further, sometimes religion or spirituality can be used as a path to magical thinking. For example, after a long period of self-exploration, a wife comes to her husband and tells him that she is planning on leaving him because she has come to realize that she does not love him and she knows that he doesn’t love her. The husband, a hyper-religious man, says, “But God can fix that!” Notice he does not deny that he doesn’t love her—he only believes in the magic that says God can fix it. This magical thinking says that the marriage is fixed in stone because it is sinful to divorce, therefore, God has to make love where there never was any. These two people just married the wrong person out of misguidance of some type. Magical thinking says that the Divine will create a new reality. But reality is reality—and resilience is all about adjusting to reality—not forcing reality to adjust to us. As my mother used to say: You can’t get blood out of a turnip. A turnip is still a turnip no matter how many ways you try to make magic—it can’t produce blood.
And finally, some people have experienced spiritual abuse, whereby they have been taught that they cannot and/or should not access their own deep spirit for guidance, for hope, for comfort, for spiritual sustenance. Rather, they are taught that they must look outside of themselves for these things—to an authority who has all the answers for them—even to a sacred text that is literalized and interpreted for them by that external authority. These people have been so abused by some authority figure that they feel that to look to their own spirit is to betray that authority figure—and they simply will not allow themselves any original thought. And so, they lack resilience—they cannot and will not adjust to reality—they just walk through it attempting to numb themselves to their own internal experience by quoting from the interpretations of their authority figure—who has essentially become their master.
As clinicians, we will often not recognize these barriers to resilience unless we provide a spiritual assessment for our clients. Simply asking the question, “And what are your spiritual resources?” is a great way to start. In order to facilitate appropriate and ethical care for our clients, we need to know what spiritual resources are available to the client, we need to assess for a history of spiritual abuse, we need to know where the magical thinking and/or hyper-religiosity is. Then we can help facilitate resilience.
This reality is the one we were given for whatever reason—which is sometimes a mystery. But accepting that life contains some mystery and allowing oneself to lean into that mystery is a powerful form of resilience. It allows us to accept reality as it is and grow through it, thereby creating new realities for ourselves. Yet we will not often lean into mystery without a strong hold on some equally powerful spirituality—a deep connection to the deeper meaning of life and/or some creative intelligence or Divine Spirit—regardless of the religion or lack of religion attached to it. That deep connection allows us to lean into mystery, indeed, to lean into life and find meaning even in the darkest of nights.