Religion, Spirituality and Therapy

Sometimes people ask if I work with people from a particular spiritual perspective. How do spirituality and therapy go together? What religion or beliefs do I have? Am I a Christian, an Atheist, a Buddhist?  I’ll respond to this question at the end of this post. Hopefully you will be willing to wait a few minutes for that.

Does religion or spirituality matter? It might.

When I think about why my religion or spiritual beliefs and practices can matter to people, there are a number of things that come to mind.  People come to counseling for support. They want a therapist who will be supportive of them. They certainly don’t want someone who is going to tell them that their beliefs are wrong. But there’s more to it than just this. People may want someone who they have something deep and important in common with. They want someone who will understand. Or, it’s possible that people feel that the difficulties they are facing are spiritual, and they want a spiritual solution. Finally, people might just think that if someone doesn’t share their beliefs, they won’t understand, or they can’t possibly have anything helpful to offer.  Each of these can be an important reason why people would ask a question like the one above. Let’s look at these issues.

Supportive Therapy

Here is an issue that I feel pretty strongly about—if someone comes to me for therapy, I have no business trying to change any of their beliefs to match my own. That’s a bottom line for me. And that sounds simple, but there’s another part to this. All of us have a lot of beliefs. We have beliefs about the world, about God, about other people, about politics, about relationships and more. Lots of beliefs….and all of us have some that work better for us than others.  So sometimes people come in with a problem that they want help for and they have some beliefs about it that seem like they aren’t helping. (These may be spiritual beliefs or other beliefs.) Those beliefs might come up in our conversation. But that’s because they’re relevant to your problem, not because I might disagree with them. (Any two people are going to have different beliefs about something.) And you always get to decide what you want to discuss and what you don’t. It’s my job to be helpful, with you getting to decide what helpful means to you.

So, do religious beliefs sometimes come up in counseling? Yes. Does it matter what my opinion might be about them? It shouldn’t.  You have a right to be supported, and that’s always my goal.

Something in Common

People might feel that if someone doesn’t share their beliefs, they won’t understand their situation. That’s quite possible in some cases. If you have a spiritual problem and you are looking for spiritual guidance, well, I’m not a minister nor a spiritual counselor, so I’m not the person who is going to be most helpful to you.

But one thing that’s very important to ask here is this—is the problem you’re facing really, fundamentally, a spiritual or moral one? Some problems are, but some aren’t. Having a broken arm, cancer or diabetes isn’t a spiritual problem, it’s a physical one. Many psychological problems can have spiritual or moral causes, but many are simply physical (i.e., they are a problem with brain function). If you’ve been relentlessly beaten as a child or ever sexually abused, then there may be spiritual issues involved in some way (the issue of forgiveness could be an example), but the fact that you start shaking when you drive by a certain place or see a picture of it is not—it’s a physical reaction to being traumatized (read about PTSD or childhood trauma here). That’s the part I specialize in.

Treating trauma isn’t fundamentally a matter of spirituality. It’s a matter of helping the brain begin to heal. (Read about trauma treatment.) Like a medical doctor, I’m there to address a certain kind of injury. I’m not there to interfere with your spiritual or religious beliefs. And let’s remember, we all have a lot in common. We’re all people, and we all know struggle and suffering.

Spirituality and Therapy

All that being said, spirituality is important to many people who come to therapy. How will I relate to you as a spiritual person? One word: with respect.  I respect everyone’s right to their beliefs. Of course, there will be some beliefs of various kinds that will change during therapy–our beliefs always change a bit as we go through life and learn its lessons. But your beliefs belong to you. Everyone has a way of finding meaning in life, and whatever that is, it’s your resource.  Strengthening resources is important in trauma therapy (really, in any therapy). So you don’t have to worry about bringing your spirituality and beliefs into the room. I’ll try to support you in your journey as best I can.

So What am I?

I’m a therapist, a professional who works primarily with trauma/PTSD, addiction and anxiety. I generally don’t disclose many other details about myself—whether it’s politics, religion or other matters. The main reason is this—I don’t want you to think that the only reason I can help you is that I’m like you in some way, or that I can’t help you if I’m different.  Neither of those are true, in my experience. I have clients with a lot of different religious beliefs and spiritual practices, many of them different from my own. It all works just fine.

And if you’re working with me on trauma, or PTSD, or something else, and some spiritual issues come up, that’s fine.  I’ll support you as a therapist–which means I support you to solve your problems using whatever method you think will be helpful.  Your spirituality is an important resource for you, and I always encourage people to use their resources.  If you feel you need support on truly spiritual matters, you might be able to get what you need from your minister or a trusted friend.  If not, we can look for a religious or spiritual counselor who might help you.

Building Resources

Therapy isn’t (only) about “fixing” what’s “wrong.”  It’s really about improving something we call wellness. Wellness means “doing OK” (or better) in various areas of your life:  socially, physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc.  In other words, enjoying life.  To do this, to really be well, you need to be building resources.

What are Resources?

Put simply, resources are things that help us.  No person is an island.  No one survives alone.  From the moment we awaken to the time we sleep, we are using things and ideas created by other people, and we are connecting with other people, in a variety of ways.  Many of those things help us.  These are external resources.  We also have internal resources, things that come from inside ourselves.  Finding and strengthening our resources improves wellness.

Social Resources

Relationships are our most important external resources.  Having positive connections with friends, family and colleagues creates physical and mental health.  Likewise, not having such connections often creates both physical and mental illness (there is solid research on this).  So if you want to improve your life significantly, here is a simple way:  connect.  Make a new friend.  Take a colleague out for lunch.  Call a family member you like that you haven’t talked with in a while.  Help a stranger.  Volunteer.  Go to a church or social event.  Doing any of these can increase your social connections, improve your health and actually lengthen your life.

You can sometimes also improve things by reducing your exposure to negative social situations.  Have a friend that you talk to for hours until you’re exhausted?  Set a boundary for yourself.  Are some of your family interactions distressing?  Find a way to reduce the distress (stop trying to be too “helpful”, or try to spend less time arguing about things that won’t change, etc.)

Building social resources helps heal depression and trauma, as well as enhancing current physical and mental health.  If you have a choice between making more money and making more friends, for example, you may want to consider this.

Activities

Hobbies and interests can be an amazing resource, especially if they give you energy.  Gardening, artistic endeavors (crafts, woodworking, painting, music), service work (volunteering at the animal shelter)—these can be excellent resources.  Even some pampering, like taking time for a hot bath instead of just showering or perhaps getting a massage, can be helpful.

Of course, things like a good diet, daily (or almost daily) exercise and sufficient sleep are vital activities—and therefore good resources.

Internal Resources

Internal resources are anything you think about that’s positive and calming.  They range from things like good memories or accomplishments of the past to gratitude or even hopes and dreams for the future.  Having a religious faith or a positive philosophy of life are also examples.  Spending time thinking of the good things in your life is known to be helpful.  Here’s an exercise:  Take a few minutes each night before bed to write down three things that went well that day and what you did that helped them go well.  A simple list with a few sentences on each one.  Research has shown that doing this improves happiness.  How cool is that?

Building Resources

Developing your resources, bit by bit and day by day is a great way to improve your life. The great psychiatrist and therapist Milton Erickson said something like this (speaking of his patients in therapy):  People are well when they are able to access the resources they need when they need them.  I think that’s a great way of thinking about health.

About clinical hypnosis

I thought I’d write a few FAQ’s and responses on clinical hypnosis, because it’s something that most people don’t have experience with, and it’s important for people to know how I use it.

What is clinical hypnosis? Clinical hypnosis is hypnosis that is used in therapy. It’s that simple. Like everything used in therapy, it’s supposed to help. It’s important that hypnosis be used ethically and appropriately, so as to help.

I’ve seen hypnosis performances before. How can that kind of thing help in therapy? Well, it pretty much can’t. Stage hypnosis is quite different from clinical hypnosis, and it’s easy to get some mistaken impressions from it (in my view). One example: hypnosis is not about a loss of control. People don’t do things they really don’t want to do in hypnosis. The people who are quacking like a duck volunteered because they were willing to try something and they don’t mind quacking!

So if I’m really in control, what’s so different about hypnosis? Well, in hypnosis you go into a trance. That sounds eerie, but it’s not. Most of us go in and out of trance quite a few times a day. When you are driving somewhere and you get there without a scratch on the car but can’t remember most of the trip, that’s because you were in a trance. A trance is simply a state where your attention is very highly focused on some things and ignoring other things (even if another part of your mind is working on those other things!). It happens all the time. In clinical hypnosis, we work with you to focus on some aspects of your internal or subconscious experience, in order to make them more vivid or more accessible.

So how do you use hypnosis? I don’t want you poking around in my unconscious mind! I use a form of hypnosis called Ericksonian hypnosis. We don’t use hypnosis to look at traumatic experiences or even negative ones. I use it to help people focus more intensely on their resources. Resources can be positive memories or beliefs, positive expectations, your capacities for growth or change, etc. The goal is for you to have more control and increased ability to help yourself. I don’t use hypnosis to “poke around.” If we go after negative “stuff” in therapy, we go after it differently.

How can hypnosis help? Hypnosis can be used to address many things like anxiety, lack of confidence, desired lifestyle changes, even physical pain. As humans, we have immense resources. It’s just a matter of getting in touch with them and using them.

I still don’t know if I want to use hypnosis in therapy. Can I still work with you? Yes. I don’t use anything in therapy that you don’t want me to use. Therapy is about helping you, and you are the one who has the final say regarding our work. There are many effective ways to work in therapy, and we’ll use those you are comfortable with.