Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: How It Heals Trauma
By Tiffany Dzioba, PsyD, LMFT, Clinical Program Director, Promises Malibu Vista
Addressing spirituality and spiritual issues in psychotherapy can be an integral part of helping clients heal from trauma and achieve post-traumatic growth. Spiritual concepts such as forgiveness, meaning-making, surrender and connectedness can help clients integrate traumatic events and move forward with new narratives and resources for coping.
Spiritual interventions can foster strength and resilience while treating trauma, but it is also possible that certain religious or spiritual belief systems can cause feelings of shame, guilt or oppression. Bringing topics of religion and spirituality into therapy, as they are relevant to the client, allows clinicians to examine how religious and spiritual worldviews may be hindering healing and growth, or may be used to foster healthy transformation.
How Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy Works
Spiritually integrated psychotherapy (a.k.a. spiritually oriented therapy or spirituality therapy), is based on findings in psychotherapy research and the psychology of religion. Essentially, it is the practice of purposefully assessing clients’ spiritual/religious belief systems and worldviews in the context of psychotherapy, while integrating spiritually oriented interventions.
Someone coming to me for help with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or any form of trauma, may expect traditional talk therapy. My clinical work with all clients, especially those with trauma histories, involves inquiring about their belief systems, religious or spiritual practices, value systems, and how they make sense of the challenges they face.
A spiritually integrated approach can work with clients from any religion or spiritual orientation. They can use their connection to spirit—whether that means connecting to a traditional view of “god,” “the universe” or another higher power they believe in—to help them grow and heal. This approach allows clients from all religions or forms of spirituality to dictate what will be useful for them during their healing process. I open a spiritual dialogue with clients, using both clinical and spiritual approaches to assess their problems and find solutions, encouraging them to draw on spiritual resources to reduce emotional pain and trauma.
Spiritually Integrated Program
Our care team at Promises Malibu Vista incorporates mindfulness, meditation, yoga, acupuncture and gratitude in group sessions and treatment, and we also encourage clients to attend church if they desire. Those who have a less traditional or more Eastern approach to spirituality and healing might use essential oils and healing stones, and practice “smudging” in their room or house. We’re very open to letting clients decide what will be most useful for them.
Spiritual issues can sometimes come up as barriers to healing. Our work at Malibu Vista is in line with the philosophy that stunted and stagnant spirituality can contribute to a client’s psychological despair. Research has shown that when spirituality is reawakened and used as a mediating factor in therapy, it fosters forgiveness which, in turn, allows clients to experience decreased anger, resentment and pain. To help clients connect with their spirituality, we do all we can to create an open and supportive environment that enables them to explore and address spiritual issues in whichever way they are most comfortable.
Forgiveness vs. Approval: A Way Forward in Healing From Trauma
It is important to note that forgiveness differs from approval. In situations where a client has been the victim of child abuse or any form of abuse as the result of another person’s transgression, forgiveness is viewed not as approval, but as the letting go of negative feelings for that individual — this letting go does not mean forgetting or condoning the other person’s behavior, but moving past it. We have found that this type of forgiveness helps clients view traumatic memories in a different light, helping them cope and experience a greater sense of peace and well-being. This form of forgiveness or letting go allows clients to find growth and healing and move forward.
Sometimes the forgiveness must be directed not at another but at the self to stimulate healing, particularly when a client feels shame or guilt about how they experienced or responded to a past trauma. Spiritual practice with supportive therapies can foster self-forgiveness, which leads to self-acceptance, newfound self-confidence, empowerment and a sense of hope.
Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy: Understanding and Addressing the Sacred. Kenneth I. Pargament. Guilford Press, 2011.
Pathways to posttraumatic growth: The contributions of forgiveness and importance of religion and spirituality. J Schultz, B Tallman, E Altmaier. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2, 104-114, 2010. doi:10.1037/a0018454;
The Nature of Forgiveness. Psychology Today, 2016.