Spirituality, a search for transcendent meaning or the belief in some sort of greater existence outside of humankind, can be linked to religion, but the practice of spirituality is generally considered to go beyond religion and link individuals with something larger, such as the universe itself.
Both therapists and people seeking treatment may hesitate to include spirituality or religion in the practice of therapy, due to the potential of differing beliefs and the possible controversy of the topic. But research suggests a therapist's inclusion of an individual's spiritual beliefs may assist in therapy and in the process of healing.
Spirituality is generally considered to be broader than any religion one might practice, as it takes into account cognitive and philosophic areas of thought as well as aspects of emotions and behavior. Some might describe spirituality as the attempt to understand one's nature or the meaning of one's existence, but spirituality is also linked to one's path to internal awareness and happiness. Many cultures and belief systems hold that one's spirit is the essence of one's existence, and thus, spirituality may also describe for some people their connection to each other and to themselves.
Though some may describe themselves as spiritual without adhering to the principles of any religion or even having any religious thought, for others, religion is the manifestation of their spirituality. This manifestation may involve the performance of rituals—in one tradition or in some combination of traditions—with varying degrees of commitment and involvement in that faith. Spirituality may also describe the attention people pay to their own well-being and that of others. For many, the practice of dance, yoga, meditation, or volunteer work, among others, are outlets in which to express spirituality.
Find a Therapist
An ethical therapist will not attempt to push personal beliefs on a person in therapy or otherwise attempt to change that individual's spiritual or religious beliefs. However, if it becomes apparent in therapy that a person's beliefs are causing unnecessary distress or if the person expresses difficulty reconciling contradictions between personal values or goals and the constraints of spiritual or religious belief, the therapist or counselor may draw the individual's attention to this area. In this case, the therapist may put forth the effort to assist the individual in the process of clarifying what is essential for that individual to achieve optimal well-being.
When a person obtains benefit from spiritual practices, a therapist can also assist in the process of more deeply understanding the person's spiritual self. This does not involve any particular teaching on the part of the therapist, but rather, encouragement to inquire into the individual's nature, conscious mind, unconscious mind, surroundings, and so on. A person's choices and the motivation for and consequences of those choices might also be discussed, and a therapist may ask people in therapy who have expressed religious or spiritual beliefs how those beliefs impact choices they have made and what they believe a higher power might want from them.
However, discussion of religion and spirituality in therapy, even to this extent, is still controversial, and many people believe the inclusion of religiously guided treatments may bring about more harm than good. Some research indicates discussions of spirituality and religion in therapy may be challenging for individuals coping with certain issues. However, because spiritual distress may manifest with both mental and physical symptoms, a therapist who addresses these topics may be able to provide greater healing and support.
For many, spiritual beliefs play a significant role in the ability to cope with adverse events in life. Spiritual practices may offer social and emotional support, help people find meaning and purpose in life, provide comfort in times of grief, and provide ethical and moral guidelines that many choose to live their lives by. Individuals who gain strength from their spiritual faith may find it difficult to achieve progress and healing in therapy when unable to address and incorporate all dimensions of who they are.
Prayer, religious meditation, or some other aspect of spiritual connection may form part of an individual's self-care routine, as might church or volunteer work in the community. Some individuals or families may be deeply committed to their faith and base much of their lives around spirituality or religion. When a person who is religious or spiritual seeks treatment, sensitivity on the part of a therapist may be beneficial to treatment because it may lead to a broader evaluation of the person seeking treatment and allow the therapist to explore a wider variety of treatment solutions. Therapists who are aware of therapeutic strategies based in spirituality, such as spiritual journaling or forgiveness protocols, may also be able to provide people in therapy with resources on these topics, whether or not they are able to address them personally.
Many 12-step programs base their principles on belief and trust in a higher power, though this power may not be named specifically. One recent study found the spiritual beliefs of people in therapy impacted their levels of worry, stress, and tolerance of uncertainty. Those participants who trusted in a higher power were found to be more trusting and to have lower levels of worry, stress, and intolerance. Other studies have determined spiritual therapy may be helpful for those experiencing substance abuse.
Spiritual therapy is a form of counseling that attempts to treat a person's soul as well as mind and body by accessing individual belief systems and using that faith in a higher power to explore areas of conflict in life. People who believe in a guiding higher power may find spiritual therapy helps them achieve a deeper connection with this power. Through spiritual therapy, a person who is experiencing depression may find a moral conflict is present in some area of life. Anxiety may result when a person is unconsciously engaging in acts of self-sabotage. Spiritual therapy is only one method of uncovering and addressing areas of conflict and possible mental health concerns that may arise in life, but some people may find it to be a beneficial model.
This type of therapy may also involve communing with nature, meditation, music, and other non-traditional therapeutic practices, all of which may be employed in an effort to connect the body and mind with the soul and explore the deepest part of one's self. While spirituality is often categorized with religion, one's spirituality may have nothing to do with religion but be simply an awareness of the universe and one's connection to it. Often, individuals who describe themselves as spiritual state their desire to attain a feeling of harmony with the universe and pursue spiritual therapy in an effort to achieve this goal.
- Grieving religious mother in therapy: Doris, 42, enters therapy for grief counseling after her mother passes away following a lengthy battle with cancer. She tells the therapist although her mother was religious and encouraged Doris to develop her faith, Doris is not religious. This was a point of contention between them up to the time of her mother's death. As the therapist inquires more deeply, Doris reveals she resented her mother’s piety, which her mother frequently pushed on her. However, she also secretly fears her mother is right and she is “in trouble with God." This fear was partially fed by Doris' mother's dying wish that Doris "embrace the love of God," and Doris feels much discomfort regarding her mother's request. Therapy helps Doris express her grief about her mother in the context of other complex feelings, and she also finds she is able to begin clarification of her own spiritual beliefs, which do not focus on a particular religion or higher power but center on an exploration of questions about life, death, and her place in the universe. The therapist also helps Doris come to terms with her inability to fulfill her mother's last wish and accept the normalcy of their differing beliefs.
- Buczynski, R. (n.d.). Does Spirituality Belong in Therapy? Retrieved from https://www.nicabm.com/nicabmblog/spirituality-in-therapy
- Heinz, A., Disney, E., Epstein, D., Glezen, L., Clark, P., & Preston, K. (2010, September 22). A focus-group study on spirituality and substance-abuse treatment. Retrieved October 21, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2943841âï¿½ï¿½
- Kersting, K. (2003). Religion and Spirituality in the Treatment Room. Monitor on Psychology, 34(11), 40-40.
- Maloof, P. (n.d.). Body/Mind/Spirit: Toward a Biopsychosocial-Spiritual Model of Health. Retrieved from http://nccc.georgetown.edu/body_mind_spirit/index.html
- Rosmarin, D., Pirutinsky, S., Auerbach, R., Björgvinsson, T., Bigda-Peyton, J., Andersson, G., Pargament, K., and Krumrei, E. (2011), Incorporating spiritual beliefs into a cognitive model of worry. J. Clin. Psychol., 67: 691–700. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20798
Last updated: 01-20-2016
Mental health professionals who meet our membership requirements can take advantage of benefits such as:
- Client referrals
- Continuing education credits
- Publication and media opportunities
- Marketing resources and webinars
- Special discounts