Trauma Recovery And Spirituality

It is not necessary to have a religious faith to be spiritual. But what do we mean by the term SPIRITUALITY?

Being a non – religious but spiritual person means we do not need to ‘buy into’ particular religious texts, systems of belief or traditions which have been passed on from generation to generation over many, many centuries. Indeed, free from such restrictive shackles, we are liberated to go about our spiritual practice in a way which is unique to us, if we so choose.

Our spiritual belief might involve belief in something far more intelligent than us but which we are so far unable to understand (and we certainly do not need to refer to such an entity as ‘god’).

 

People who are spiritual often report that being so :

– helps them to find meaning and purpose in life

– helps them during periods of suffering

– helps them to cope with the death of loved ones

– helps them to come to terms with the prospect of their own death

– helps them learn and develop in response to mistakes and suffering, rather than being defeated by them

– helps them recover from traumatic experiences

– helps with fears concerning the possibility of ‘life after death’

– helps them if they feel the need for forgiveness or the need to forgive others

– helps them develop their creativity

– helps them to become kinder, more patient and more compassionate

– helps them to develop empathy

– helps them to develop better judgement.

 

Many people who are spiritual report becoming more aware of the RECIPRICOL element of life (ie we tend, to some extent at least, to ‘reap what we sow’).

Also, those who are spiritual often find that they are more able to draw on their own suffering to effectively help others. Thus, suffering becomes less meaningless.

 

SPIRITUAL PRACTICES INCLUDE :

– meditation

– yoga

– Thi Chi

– sports that encourage the development of trust and cooperation

– appreciating nature, its beauty, exquisite complexity and ability to inspire feelings of awe

– contemplative reading (literature, poetry, philosophy)

– forming deeper relationships/friendships

– appreciation of the arts

– creative activities (e.g. painting, gardening, cooking)

– volunteering to help others

 

SPIRITUALLY INFORMED THERAPIES INCLUDE :

– MBCT (mindfulness based cognitive therapy)

CFT (compassion focused therapy)

– forgiveness therapy

–  yoga

Carl Jung

Carl Jung (1875-1961) was the founder of analytic psychology and regarded spirituality as an essential part of his work. He did not subscribe to any one, traditional religion. Indeed, he believed that fundamentalist and dogmatic religions inhibit spiritual growth, rather than enhance it.

Instead, he stressed the importance of the the person’s individual experience in spiritual growth (including the experiencing numinous events) and of discovering one’s true self (which Jung regarded as the most complete, fulfilled, integrated, balanced and effective individual that we can be – although, it has to be said, he also stated that very few people were ever able to attain this optimum state, rather as Maslow believed very few could ever ascend to the state of self-actualization in the hierarchy of human needs.

 

Pain, Suffering And Trauma Can Help Us Discover Our True Selves, According To Jung :

Jung also believed that our discovery of our ‘true selves’ involved a process of ‘individualization’ that was often a very protracted, extremely painful and traumatic experience.

In order to emphasize just how excruciatingly painful this process could be, he compared it to initiation tests that are undertaken by members of shamanic tribes. These initiation tests can be nearly fatal but are intended to bring about a new spiritual awareness, allowing the individuals who endure them to become spiritual teachers and healers.

In essence, Jung viewed such a process as akin to ‘death and rebirth’ and he points out that such ‘death and rebirth’ processes are central to many religions and traditions, including the death and resurrection of Jesus ; ancient Egyptian myths in which the god dies and is then reborn ; the mythical process of alchemy in which base metals are broken down and reformed into precious metal.

Related to this latter example (the mythical process of alchemy) is the SHATTERED VASE THEORY OF POSTTRAUMATIC GROWTH, and, related to the more general idea that extreme suffering may lead to spiritual development is the ADVERSITY HYPOTHESiS (though neither of these are directly connected To Jung) and I describe both of these below :

 

 

SHATTERED VASE THEORY OF POSTTRAUMATIC GROWTH :

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was first incorporated into the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – DSM III – (sometimes informally referred to as the psychiatrists’ bible) in 1980.

Although, without appropriate and effective therapy, PTSD can devastate lives (including, of course, variants of PTSD resulting from severe childhood trauma), as the disorder has become increasingly studied by clinicians it has also become more and more apparent that some individuals affected by the disorder not only overcome their suffering, but, also, report positive changes to their lives that have derived from working through the effects of their traumatic experiences ; indeed, many have reported  that they went on to function better, and extract more meaning and fulfilment from life, than they had been able to prior to developing PTSD.

As a result of this discovery (i.e. that some individuals not only recover from PTSD but go on to thrive), the psychologists Tedeschi and Calhoun coined the term POSTTRAUMATIC GROWTH (PTG). Indeed, studies now suggest that up to seventy per cent of those who have suffered from severe trauma may, at least, gain some significant benefit from their experience. Such benefits frequently include the following :

  • a greater appreciation of the importance of supportive relationships
  • an awareness of their courage and mental strength (as demonstrated by having survived extreme adversity)
  • a deeper appreciation of life and a determination to ‘seize the day’

The ‘Shattered Vase’ Metaphor :

The ‘shattered vase‘ metaphor was devised by the psychologist, Professor Stephen Joseph. It is based on the idea that after a severely traumatic experience we can feel as if our lives have been ‘shattered’ and that our very being has become fragmented.

However, just as one could rearrange the broken pieces of the shattered vase into a new work of art, such as a mosaic or sculpture, so too, suggests Joseph, may we be able to ‘rebuild’ ourselves.

Like the shattered vase refashioned into a different art piece, our ‘rebuilt’ self will also be different from the original, but may well possess new qualities that did not exist in our former selves, such as those listed above. Indeed, the new, rebuilt self may well be a significant improvement upon the old one and as such would constitute posttraumatic growth.

We can, therefore, draw some solace from the shattered vase metaphor, even if our suffering has been great.

 

THE ADVERSITY HYPOTHESIS :

 


The vast majority of studies examining the effects of trauma on the individual have concentrated on the negative effects such as depression, anxiety, phobias, flashbacks, nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and so on. However, more recently, an increasing number of studies have focused on how the experience of trauma may, in some ways, actually benefit us.

Indeed, the ADVERSITY HYPOTHESIS puts forward the proposal that adversity and suffering are necessary for optimum human development.

Closely linked to the adversity hypothesis is the concept of posttraumatic growth (PTG).

 

The theory of posttraumatic growth suggests that some individuals who undergo traumatic experiences find that they grow and develop as a person in beneficial ways once the trauma is over. These benefits often include :

  1. Discovering/developing strengths and abilities that weren’t apparent prior to the traumatic experience and becoming a more confident person as a result.
  2. Feeling stronger as a person in the knowledge one can survive great difficulty and suffering.
  3. Developing a greater appreciation of life once the trauma is over.
  4. Strengthening of pre-existing valuable and meaningful friendships/bonds/relationships (the colloquial expression ‘finding out who your real friends are’ is of relevance here).
  5. Gaining of a better perspective on life.
  6. Gaining insight into life’s priorities and what one really wants to do with it to make it fulfilling – often leading to decisive and positive life-change.
  7. Gaining a deeper insight into life in general leading to spiritual growth and development.

Indeed, there may well be other benefits, but the above list represents the main ones so far highlighted by the research carried out to date.

It is also worth noting that research carried out by Pennebaker (1990) suggests that if we are able to ‘make sense of’ our traumatic experiences in a way that is meaningful to us we are particularly likely to benefit from posttraumatic growth.

Also, research by Helgeson (2006) suggests that individuals are most likely to start to benefit from posttraumatic growth if their traumatic experiences ceased two years ago or more.

COPING PROCESS OR OUTCOME?

Whether posttraumatic growth represents an active coping process or is a more passive outcome of the experiencing of trauma (or, indeed,  is a combination of the two) is still a matter of debate amongst psychologists; notwithstanding this, not everyone who experiences trauma also experiences posttraumatic growth.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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