Integrating Spirituality in Therapy Sessions
By: Krystina Jones-Norvell LMFT
Many people come to therapy because they want to “feel better”. As therapists and counselors, we are trained to complete assessments, ask the right questions, and try to drill down to the core “negative belief” or “explore self-defeating life patterns and beliefs”. Often, as I sit with my clients, listen to them process the challenges of their lives one question floats upward to my lips. “Do you have a faith or religious practice?” This can be a risky question. It has been met with a variety of stares, hard glances, sighs and even tears. Yet I believe integrating the faith, spirituality or religious beliefs of my clients into the therapeutic work is just as important (if not more so) than the interventions used in the room.
Viktor Frankl, famous psychiatrist and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, wrote, “Man is not destroyed by suffering; he is destroyed by suffering without meaning,” (Frankl, 1984). As therapists in the helping field it is our job to help our clients make meaning out of the pain, abuse and other sufferings they have experienced or even afflicted on others. For many clients, their spiritual experiences bring a sense of comfort and meaning. Many of my clients who have a strong faith or religious practice are able to touch their wounded places, forgive themselves and their abuser, and find peace – even hope – in their process. Many of my clients that do not have a spiritual practice struggle with the concepts of forgiveness and often experience a sense of “stuckness” and meaninglessness that their spiritual counterparts do not.
NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, published a blog exploring spirituality and mental health treatment. The author, Luna Greenstein wrote that some of the benefits of incorporating religion and spirituality into mental health treatment include initiating social connections with others, fostering a sense of belonging to a group and offers trustworthy and safe social engagement, whether in a faith community or mental health treatment community. Other benefits include enhancing mindfulness practices, meditation and reflection, promotes self-empowerment, gratitude and personal growth (Greenstein, 2016).
Whether through a formal inquiry or an informal question as the topic emerges, I have found that inviting a client to discuss their experiences with faith, religion and spiritual practices has sparked many conversations about overcoming fear, resilience and opened the door for the clients to discover a deeper and more meaningful relationship with themselves and their experiences. As Henri Nouwen once said, “Those who do not run away from our pains but touch them with compassion bring healing and new strength. The paradox indeed is that the beginning of healing is in the solidarity with the pain.”