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A Spiritual Connection: Psychotherapy, Spirituality and Mental Health

Life is a continuous journey, and along the way many people learn more about themselves and try to solidify their identity, find happiness, peace and purpose.

Spirituality can be a small or significant part of the journey. It only makes sense that if spirituality is part of life, then spirituality would also be connected to psychology and psychotherapy.

Psychotherapists attempt to help people with their mental health issues and give them tools to function and thrive, so spirituality could be a part of this process as well. Experts share their opinions on how spirituality can connect with psychotherapy practice, or if it even has a place in therapy.

To be clear, spirituality is not always associated with religion. In fact, Ohio State University’s Student Wellness Center website states that “spirituality is not religion.”

Spirituality can mean a lot of different things depending on the person, according to the website. For example, one theme of spirituality is “the idea of a process or journey of self-discovery and of learning not only who you are, but who you want to be.”

Other themes are “the challenge of reaching beyond your current limits,” “a connectedness to yourself and to others,” “meaning, purpose and direction,” and “a higher power, whether rooted in a religion, nature or some kind of unknown essence.”

The University of Maryland Medical Center website also suggests there are many definitions to spirituality, including that “it’s the way you find meaning, hope, comfort and inner peace in your life,” and it’s not always connected to religion.

Sara Rosenquist, a board certified clinical health psychologist, said in an email that being influenced by spirituality is unavoidable in a sense.

“We are all influenced by our values, beliefs, moods, family history, etc.,” Rosenquist said. “So whatever the therapist's spirituality is going to influence them to one degree of another.”

She said that there can be both positive and negative spiritualities present in psychotherapy practice depending on the situation. For example, if one’s spirituality focuses on punishment, guilt and fear, then the practice could be negatively impacted.

Also, she added that what is more of a concern is the theology of a therapist. In fact, some patients seek therapists who share their beliefs in this area.

“For [therapists] who do not advertise themselves as being of a particular theological bent, then theology usually does not enter the discussion of the session unless the patient brings it up,” Rosenquist said. “It is possible for a therapist to help the patient sort through their own theology and ferret out the beliefs that lead to positive emotions and pro social actions without disclosing his or her own theology.”

In the end, positive religious beliefs and spirituality can both lead to mental health wellness.

“Research shows rather consistently that those who have a positive theology and positive spiritual practice do better (have better therapy outcomes, statistically better mental health on a variety of standard measures) than people who have a negative theology (i.e., a punishing God and a lot of fears about doing bad or getting it wrong),” Rosenquist said. “Similarly, people who have a spiritual practice that is positive and amounts to some kind of mindfulness practice do a lot better in therapy and in life.”

Jane Simington, a therapist and the owner of Taking Flight International Corporation and Taking Flight Books, said in an email that therapists should address emotional, physical, mental and spiritual aspects in therapy.

“By nature of being human all people have a spiritual dimension to their lives, and the spiritual dimension of our humanness has a pervasive influence on thought, behavior, and general health and well-being,” Simington said. “It is [well-known] that a crisis can drive us inward ... to struggle with the deeper questions of life and death, questions of meaning and purpose, the deep ‘why’ questions in life.”

She said people can struggle with deep mental health pain, called “soul pain.”

“Soul pain is the intense inner [pain] where a person struggles with the beliefs they once held and which no longer seem to be supporting them,” Simington said.

“Exploring someone’s spiritual beliefs and practices can therefore be an important part of the mental health assessment and healing process. A mental health therapist can be extremely effective in helping the person explore the struggle and arrive at a place of feeling empowered in having gained a deeper inner personal knowing.”

She said therapists need to differentiate between religion and spirituality, and recognize differences in beliefs.

“Exploring spirituality with a client can help them feel more grounded and connected, can give them a greater sense of love, trust, hope and belonging,” Simington said.

Tina Tessina, a licensed psychotherapist and author of the new book “LoveStyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences,” suggests in an email that spirituality is a common part of therapy.

“People who come for therapy are often in crisis, and crisis is when we turn to spiritual focus,” Tessina said. “Therapists should be comfortable with spirituality, and be able to speak in the terms of whatever spiritual practice their clients use.”

She said therapists need to be open to all beliefs, but also know how to address harmful beliefs of the client. Also, spirituality shouldn’t be brought up unless the patient talks about it or the conversation heads in that direction.

“It's very negative when a therapist has a rigid spiritual point of view and tries to impose that on clients,” Tessina said. “It's positive when a therapist is accepting of many points of view and can support the client in his or her spiritual focus.”

Have you noticed that spirituality affects your mental health, and if you’ve gone to therapy has spirituality been an important part of that experience?

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