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How religious coping can reduce anxiety

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On June 15 I’ll receive a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Eastern Washington University. To earn the degree I had to spend three academic quarters writing a research paper on a counseling-related topic. And though I wouldn’t want to inflict all 20 or so pages of my paper on you, I think my key findings are pretty interesting.

As some of you may know, I experienced a degree of culture shock when I moved in 2011 from relatively non-religious Seattle to markedly religious Spokane. As I began working with undergraduate clients in my practicum and then my internship, I realized that faith was at the center of a lot of their lives. Soon I was intrigued by the question of how their faith helped them day to day. 

Because young adults face a lot of developmental crises (Who am I? How do I form close relationships?), I thought about faith as a way of reducing the effects of stress. As it turned out, a lot of research supported the idea that people of faith in general, and young adults in particular, use religious coping to manage anxiety.

As you might imagine, most of the research on religious coping to date is based on American Protestants. Few studies examine how Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Catholics cope with anxiety through faith. Kenneth Pargament, who has studied religious coping extensively, made this observation more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, it remains true today.

In a 2012 study, 92 percent of Americans surveyed said they believe in God. The percentage of counselors who identify as religious? Much lower. Freud saw faith as a fantasy best laid aside after childhood, and many contemporary therapists seem to agree.

The catch is that most religious clients want to talk about their faith in therapy. Can non-religious counselors handle that? Probably not, if they haven’t been trained on the subject or consider it a waste of time. Yet therapy and many faith traditions share a fundamental idea: Meaning in life is the key to a rewarding existence.

Quite a few religions teach that life is inherently meaningful. In contrast, counselors — especially existentialists like Viktor Frankl and narrative therapists like Michael White — may contend that individuals “make meaning” through their interpretation of events. In any case, meaning in life can serve as a powerful bridge between non-religious counselors and religious clients.

In my research, I learned that young adults tend to use prayer as a way of healing, complaining, and/or reflecting on their lives. Therapy, too, allows people to heal, complain and reflect in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. Thus, young adults who pray may receive some of the same benefits counseling would provide.

A 2010 study found another parallel between faith and relationships. It appears that many undergraduate students reenact their attachment to early caregivers in their attachment to God. Thus, distant parents might unwittingly contribute to their children’s estrangement from religion. In some cases, of course, young adults take the opposite approach: They seek a close connection with God to compensate for a chilly parent-child relationship. Either way, their faith development may be closely linked to those crucial first relationships.

Purification rituals, support from clergy, reappraisal of one’s life through a spiritual lens, and surrender to God’s will are all potentially effective forms of religious coping. However, they are most likely to reduce anxiety in a person who sees God as just, loving, and supportive rather than arbitrary and vengeful. One question that remains about religious coping is whether a “third factor” accounts for the phenomenon. If people with certain traits are more likely to be religious, is it those traits, rather than religious coping, that allows them to experience less anxiety?

Researchers have also pondered whether religion has an “active ingredient” that could help non-religious people reduce their anxiety. The answer may lie in the good old Serenity Prayer. Faith can give people a sense of control over certain elements of their lives as well as the recognition that others are beyond their control. The wisdom to know the difference may be a potent inoculation against high anxiety.

Religious self-disclosure by counselors could be the most controversial issue related to faith and therapy. The notion that counselors should never discuss their own religious beliefs with clients is regarded as a truism in the counseling field. Yet British psychiatrist and professor Chris Cook, as recently as 2011, has noted a lack of evidence for this widely held assumption. In fact, counselors who talk about their faith — albeit in well-chosen moments, and probably not with most clients — may be following a trend in the profession: increased transparency in the client-counselor relationship as a means of equalizing power.

Cook also observed that therapists can improve their work with religious clients by becoming more comfortable with faith, not least because it's a meaningful part of countless lives. If people of faith want to discuss their religious beliefs with a counselor, it may be useful for them to say so. However, it is also the responsibility of the counselor not to shy away from discussions of faith, particularly when they might improve the therapeutic relationship and help clients heal, learn and grow.

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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