Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Spirituality and Coping with Trauma-Finding God in Unsafe Places

While we have no doubt witnessed and experienced terror and atrocity in the name of God, we have also seen the role that spirituality and religion play in coping with traumatic pain and loss.candles

  • In the aftermath of 9/11, people went to their houses of worship – not hospitals or mental health clinics. Riverside Church could not accommodate its 20,000 congregants. Spiritual Caregivers of many faiths came together to consider how they would best serve their members.
  • In their study of resilience, Southwick and Charney underscore religion and spirituality as important sources of strength. Referencing the resilience of Vietnam POWs, they quote Honor Bound –“ There is virtually no personal account in the Vietnam POW literature that does not contain some reference to a transforming spiritual episode.”
  • For many weeks after the near fatal car accident of my youngest son, we were touched and surprised by professional colleagues as well as friends who disclosed their spirituality as support. A colleague stopped my husband after a board meeting to share that he was saying a novena for our son. A colleague of mine reported that he was not religious but  had gone to temple to pray for us. Someone sent her grandmother’s rosary beads from Ireland. A friend returned from Africa with a wooden statue from a tribal Spiritual Healer.

Spirituality and Religion

  • Spirituality is the personal sense or search for the sacred. For some, it is a belief in God, some Absolute Unity, something beyond what can be known.
  • Spirituality can be fostered by organized religion but a person can change religions, or not align with a religion and still be spiritual.
  • Religiosity is defined as commitment to the beliefs and practices recognized by a specific organized sacred institution that involves rituals, beliefs and practices upheld by a community of believers.

Data from the 2014 survey released by the Associated Press–NORC Center reveals that 21 percent of Americans say they have no religion. Fifty-eight percent, however, say that God does exist, and 70 percent believe in life after death.

What Prompts Us To Access Spirituality Or Turn To Religion In The Face Of Trauma?

  • At the moment of trauma, we are rendered helpless by overwhelming force.

In the face of natural disaster, human atrocity, war, terrorism, illness, abuse, accidents–everything that is familiar to us – our sense of mastery, control, self-reflection, cognition, time, interpersonal trust, belief in humanity, belief in God is abruptly called into question.

  • It is at those times that we reach for something beyond us. That which is spiritual is generally understood to transcend ordinary physical limits of time and space, matter and energy.
  • Whether we have been assaulted by trauma or are standing next to someone suffering, we reach for something or someone to make meaning, to protest, to find solace, to go on, to hope… We look for God in Unsafe places.

 How Does the Positive Use of Spirituality or Religion Foster Resilience After Trauma?

 A close looks reveals that Spirituality and Religion facilitate the stages that we associate with restoration and recovery after trauma. These include: Establishing Safety, Remembering and Mourning, and Re-connection.

Establishing Safety: Physical and Psychological

 Community of Believers

  • In the acute stage of trauma, research finds that familiar networks of connection serve to buffer the impact and enhance safety. Such networks might include parents with children, extended family,combat units and faith-based communities.
  • One aspect of the gathering of people at houses of worship after a traumatic event is the connection with others who share a common belief system — the familiarity of the rituals, the prayers, and service.
  • Given that trauma turns on our fight/flight reactions, an important benefit of being in a community with others is that connection helps re-set body rhythms and soothes terror and grief.

Never Alone – A Buffer to Isolation and Despair

Some view spirituality as primarily relational. It is a transcendent relationship with that which is sacred (Walsh, 2000). Turning to belief in God or a higher power in the face of trauma, loss or suffering reduces the isolation endemic to trauma. No matter where you are you have the feeling that you are never alone.

  • POWs enduring torture reported solace in the belief that God was always present to lighten the load. “You just need to recognize His presence.”
  • Studies of adult survivors of Child Abuse have found that an important reported coping strategy for many was spirituality—such as believing the perpetrator would have to answer to God even if there was no justice attained in the natural world.

Coping with a Crisis of Faith

  • In the aftermath of 9/11 and in speaking with chaplains, an important understanding that was shared was that many seek connection with a spiritual caregiver after traumatic events because what their experience with the unspeakable results in a crisis of faith- “ How Could God Let this Happen?” They are angry with God and can’t find a way to resolve it.
  • One Chaplain invited those suffering in this way, to allow the anger, to register it but not equate it with having to walk away from their belief system or religion. He underscored the personal relationship each may have with God and asked them to consider why they couldn’t be angry with God. “Don’t you ever get angry with others in your loving relationships?”  Resonating with this, psychologist, Dr.Lewis Aron, shares that as a Jew, he grew up with a faith that expected on-going conversing with God. It was expected that you would question, confront and maintain an ongoing dialogue with God in an intimate way.
  • Often the moral injury or self–blame felt in the aftermath of trauma makes a person feel unworthy to access their faith. “ How did I let this happen?” “ I should have done something different.” The words of one spiritual caregiver offer hope, “ Everyone else can forgive you, and now it is your turn to forgive yourself because God already has.”

Remembering and Mourning

Central to coping in the aftermath of trauma and traumatic loss is narrating healing- transforming the speechless nightmare of traumatic assault to a story that can be told and empathically heard.

  • Prayer is often the first step in this process.

Prayer has been called “the native language” of the soul, the universal expression of an innate human desire to make contact with the divine (Sheler, 2005, U.S. News & World Report).

  • When he lost his two sons in one night, Charlie Walton, author of When There are No Words reported that in the face of people not knowing what to do or say suggested–you hug and pray.
  • Prayer not only reduces helplessness by giving you something to do—it gives you words that you know. It is often a way to hold on, a familiar step to feeling connected with love and compassion.
  • Prayer broadly defined from formal prayer to mindfulness, meditation, repetition of loving kindness meditations, or just speaking to God, has been proven to reduce stress response symptoms of hyperarousal, intrusion, numbing, avoidance, and negative thoughts.

Mourning – Grieving

The prayers, rituals, remembrances and services associated with one’s religion or one’s personal spirituality facilitate mourning as they offer visible and shared opportunities to publicly memorialize a loved one.

The relational definition of grieving is the action of holding on to an enduring presence of a loved one as one looks forward to life. It is movement toward a goal of recovery that does not mean forgetting. It means remembering in a way that is not incompatible with tears or pain and does not obscure your identify or your entitlement to happiness.


Trauma too often leaves us estranged from self, family and a future in an unsafe place.

In his description of the unconscious effects of trauma, Stolorow captures this as the feeling of losing “one’s sense of being.” It is the need for a relational home – someone to get it, someone who knows about the pain, to help us know we are not alone.

For many, spirituality and/or a community of believers offer that home. Spirituality and religion offer the bridge to reconnection with the essential goodness of self and others, an appreciation of life, reunion with nature and a reason to hope.

This week Pope Francis visited the United States in his journey to meet with the world. It is telling that this Pope who has captured the hearts, respect and attention of so many is always… Finding God in Unsafe Places.