I want to start today’s post with a clarification. I’ve often noticed that spirituality is confused with religion, so I want to spend a moment explaining the distinction between the two. Religion leans on group-endorsed organised means and methods and often prescribes specific practices within that particular group. Spirituality, on the other hand does not prescribe any rules, means or methods for achieving meaning or transcendence. As an academic and researcher in the field of positive psychology, I lean towards the science so I will use this definition of psychology and spirituality - “psychology represents the grounding effect in which the mind is used for thinking, rationalising and understanding life, while spirituality transcends rational though and evolves over one’s lifetime” (Prof. Itai Ivtzan- Awareness is Freedom). Whilst religious beliefs are also shown to increase amongst trauma survivors, my post today on spiritual and existential change is based on the scientific and empirical research conducted by researchers on the strong connection between psychology and spirituality post-trauma.
So, what does it feel like when traumatic events hit us out of the blue? Ever since the pandemic and the lockdown, I’ve heard numerous people say that they “just can’t believe this is happening.” We’ve seen an unprecedented number of deaths and we are now witnessing a complete global recession and economic meltdown. Normal life as we know it shifted in just a span of three months and we are still waking up to this new reality. Many will struggle for long periods of time to come to terms with this. People’s core beliefs and basic assumptions have been violated with countless left wondering what to believe, how to move forward and the need to develop a new understanding of what is happening. However traumatic events help us reveal important aspects of our life and the world we live in and often brings a reset. Perhaps certain goals or priorities you set prior to this pandemic are now gone or these goals may no longer have much meaning to you. Or the opposite, you paid little attention to those goals earlier and now they perhaps need a closer look. In my last few posts, I wrote about the phenomenon of posttraumatic growth – profound growth following highly challenging situations. Although posttraumatic growth can occur naturally it can also be facilitated in a number of ways. Over the past few decades, psychologists have been researching this concept and growth following trauma have been documented in areas relating to personal strength, relationships, meaning, appreciation of life and today I want to focus on the domain of spiritual and existential change.
Spiritual and existential shifts post-trauma usually stems from refection. As core beliefs and assumptions are shattered one tends to look at the “big questions” in their lives. Pioneer researchers in the field of posttraumatic growth, professors Tedeschi, Calhoun and others have documented an increased sense of importance in spiritual matters in survivors as a result of trauma. Spirituality can be defined as having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe; knowing where one fits within the larger scheme; having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape and provide comfort. After going through a life-altering experience people often tend to ask questions like - “if I had gone, would my life had mattered”; “what am I here to do”; “what is my life’s meaning”; “what deep connection do I have with this world” and so on. Traumas often force people to reconsider these questions or to examine them seriously. So the question I would ask you here is – how do you define spirituality in your life and have you searched for higher meaning and purpose after the pandemic?
Spiritual and existential growth is often connected to gratitude, hope, zest, love and kindness. Other examples of the feeling of connection with the transcendent are often described as awe, elevation, compassion, inner peace, amazement, purpose, meaningfulness, interconnection with others and union with the higher power/nature. I have often found spirituality through running and meditation and a number of my clients through nature. I truly believe that growth after trauma cannot be coerced so at whatever stage you are in this pandemic you may find yourself seeking answers or looking for some meaning. If you are, you can try this strengths-based exercise to enhance spiritual strengths. This intervention is an adaptation of Ryan Niemiec’s Character Strengths Interventions.
Practice mindful breathing for at least 5 minutes per day for 3 days.
Choose an object, person or experience that you can appreciate as cherished or precious.
Spend a minimum of 5 minutes a day (5 days a week for 3 days) slowing down and practising mindful breathing and then shifting your attention to the object, person or experience. Be open to what is spiritual to you about this experience.
This concludes my five-part series on post-pandemic growth based on the phenomenon of posttraumatic growth. Although traumatic events can absolutely knock us off our trajectory, in time we can also use this change to reconsider how we live, our new priorities, principles and goals. Our life story can change in surprising ways. Most often this change occurs after a period of struggle, uncertainty and some help. To find out more on coaching for wellbeing and posttraumatic growth, please get in touch. My friends, stay strong and stay safe.