Spiritual Values and ResourcesIn the Management of Traumatic
John E. Jamieson, Ph.D.
of recent traumatic events, from Oklahoma City
to Littleton, has led to the conclusion that there
is a need to evaluate the role that spiritual
and religious values and resources may play in
the management of traumatic stress. In viewing
the news reports about these recent events, it
became evident that, in almost every situation,
the community at large sought comfort, support
and understanding from their personal religious
community. Many news stories reported on the numerous
memorial services held for the victims. Others
dealt with the clergy s involvement in the recovery
process for grieving survivors. Conversations
with observers of these events often moved back
and forth between expressions of horror at what
had happened and expressions of religious hope
and concern for the survivors.
As time passed,
the "human interest" stories started
exploring the personal reactions to the events,
some of which included significant spiritual growth
by an awakening of spiritual awareness, which
provided new hope and the strength to move ahead.
Altogether, these various pieces of information
form a pattern of behavior that seems to sustain
the premise that there is value in utilizing religious
or spiritual beliefs and practices to provide
support for the recovery process for victims,
rescuers and observers of traumatic events.
In a nation that is busy at the work of seeking
personal spirituality, there remains an often
repeated misconception often held by mental health
professionals that religious professionals, who
are perceived as dealing in myths and mystery,
have little to contribute in a time of crisis.
The practical evidence of recent events would
seem to challenge this assumption. It has been
reported and confirmed that, in Oklahoma City,
as the first rescue units were arriving on the
scene, the religious faithful were gathering in
a church within sight of the disaster to pray
for the victims and survivors as well as for the
safety of the rescuers. This was not an organized
event but rather a spontaneous response by people
who cared very much for their neighbors and friends
who were involved in the tragedy. While this example
does not directly address the theme of this article,
it does demonstrate an intrinsic value that is
perceived by the populace at- large in the rituals
and beliefs of the numerous religions and spiritual
groups among us.
In their book, Critical Incident Stress Management
(CISM) (Second Edition), George Everly and Jeffrey
Mitchell (1999) state that, "The chaplaincy,
or other religious-oriented crisis response elements,
including pastoral counseling, may also house
the CISM program because of their universal value
to primary, secondary, or tertiary victims of
crisis who are desirous of such intervention.
In the same work they also note that targets for
referral could include, but not be limited to:
1) Medical services; 2) Psychological services;
3) Psychiatric services; 4) Religious or spiritual
services; 5) Family support services; 6) Financial
aid services; 7) Career counseling; and 8) Legal
services. The authors also suggest that in some
instances, several of these services will need
to be combined to best serve the patient in distress.
In these references, Mitchell and Everly take
a first step in the formal recognition of the
value available in religious or spiritual
support services. In another publication, George
Everly (1995) asserts, "No one should
underestimate the spiritual needs of individuals
who are exposed to traumatic events. CISM
trained clergy personnel play a vitally important
role in the management of psychotrauma."
This is an important assertion because it establishes
the spiritual needs of individuals as an important
priority for the continuing management of traumatic
What kinds of religious or spiritual services
are of potential value? The answer to this question
will depend upon the specific beliefs, convictions,
and practices of the individual affected by traumatic
stress. In general, there are at least four kinds
of services that have demonstrated value in the
incidents mentioned at the beginning of this article.
These services would include funerals, memorial
services, spiritual fellowship and pastoral counseling.
Funerals often serve as the initial point in the
recovery process from grief. In the ritual of
funeral, the reality and inevitability of death
are squarely faced. This can move the survivors
from denial into one of the later steps of the
grieving process. Because in many religions the
emphasis of the funeral is equally focused on
hope in a future state, the ritual can begin enabling
the affected individuals to gain a broader perspective
on the loss suffered which helps them to normalize
the events surrounding the death. Sensitive clergy
who understand that normalizing emotional reactions
to what has happened is a critical component of
the recovery process can structure the funeral
ritual to accomplish this goal. When people understand
that the grief and anger they feel are "normal"
reactions to an "abnormal" set of circumstances,
they are able to more easily put aside the crippling
emotions and begin the recovery process.
Memorial services actually fulfill multiple functions.
Primarily they are a time when the whole
community can gather to remember and celebrate
the individuals whose lives were lost. But,
beyond this, they also serve as a cathartic agent
to allow the community to begin to share the grief
of those immediately affected. This can be accomplished
by the sympathetic expressions of the gathered
community, or by the conduct of the leaders of
the service. The tangible sense of community that
exists in large public gatherings also adds to
the healing effect.
A third spiritual service that can be helpful
is that of spiritual fellowship. This can occur
in small or large groups. The primary mechanism
at work in this case is the shared beliefs and
values that are reinforced during times of crisis
as fellow-believers reach out to those more directly
impacted by the trauma. It can take place across
a kitchen table or in a religious (faith-based)
support group, or in a larger venue of worship.
Because victims of trauma often feel isolated
and alone, opportunities for fellowship are important
to help them avoid the withdrawal and social isolation
that often are part of traumatic stress. Because
those involved in this spiritual fellowship share
the same beliefs, values, convictions and practices
as the victim, it provides a normalizing reinforcement
of the person s own values and beliefs. This process
serves both to help avoid unnecessary suffering
and to provide a foundation on which the recovery
processes can be built.
The fourth service, pastoral counseling, requires
special training for the clergy in order for the
process to be most effective. Unfortunately, few
clergy are adequately trained to provide interventions
for critical incident and posttraumatic stress.
In some cases, pastoral counselors (like some
ill-prepared mental health professionals) lack
a proper understanding of the mechanisms of traumatic
stress and as a result offer religious platitudes
that can exacerbate the trauma by creating guilt,
shame, or confusion. However, a properly trained
pastoral counselor can help a traumatized individual
recover from the physical, mental and emotional
symptoms of traumatic stress by skillfully integrating
sound psychological support with appropriate reinforcement
of applicable religious doctrine and teaching.
This approach can enhance the recovery of mind,
body and spirit to achieve an integrated wholeness
as the recovery process is completed.
It is important that the counsel offered reinforces
those spiritual values that will best enable the
person to regain a state of wholeness or homeostasis.
Such values may include forgiveness, reconciliation,
hope, love, compassion, and generosity. The positive
nature of these values is very significant because
the person will often be overwhelmed with a sense
of guilt or self-blame. Fear of criticism and
a tendency to seek isolation from social contact
are frequent symptoms of traumatic stress. If
a counselor were to reinforce values that concretize
blame or cause the person to feel they are being
judged for what has happened, irreparable harm
might result. Therefore, it is most important
to reinforce positive, constructive values that
are a part of the persons normal belief system
so that they can gain strength from these values
and reconstruct their life on positive principles.
If the pastoral counseling is in the form of a
support group, the same or greater care must be
taken to assure that neither the facilitator nor
members of the group allow the conversation to
focus on destructive or negative values. Properly
utilized, pastoral counseling has the potential
to enhance and accelerate the recovery process
by drawing upon the positive energy of existing
beliefs, convictions and values, rather than having
to teach new values that may conflict with the
person s existing convictions. It is not a replacement
for appropriate Critical Incident Stress Management
any more than CISM is a substitute for appropriate
psychological interventions. They each enhance
the other and, taken together, provide a holistic
approach to meeting the needs of those suffering
the impact of traumatic stress.
This article is not meant to be a thorough defense
of the value of spiritual and religious support
in the management of traumatic stress. Rather,
it is intended to raise the challenge to researchers
and practitioners alike to more fully evaluate
the theoretical and clinical significance of spiritual
and religious values and resources in the management
of traumatic stress. Anecdotal evidence seems
to suggest a spontaneous tendency (at least in
some communities) to seek spiritual and religious
support in times of crisis. If this can be more
broadly substantiated, then experts in the field
of traumatic stress will need to assess what needs
to be done to optimize the effectiveness of this
phenomena in caring for those impacted by trauma.
Hopefully, research will give these spiritual
values and resources clear significance as one
part of the total array of options available in
the management of traumatic stress.
Everly, G.S., & Mitchell, J.T. (1999). Critical
Incident Stress Management (Second Edition),
Ellicott City, MD: Chevron Publishing Co.
Everly, G.S., (1995). Innovations in Disaster
and Trauma Psychology (Vol. 1), Ellicott City,
MD: Chevron Publishing Co.