Modern psychology has prioritized the use of scientific, empirically-based treatment protocols for healing and for good reason. But there is an increasing body of evidence that supports drawing upon clients’ spiritual and religious resources to complement evidence-based approaches.
In fact, science itself says that spirituality and religion can be incredible resources for clients during the treatment process.
While spirituality tends to be unique to each individual, there are ways to skillfully navigate this realm in a way that lends itself to optimal treatment outcomes. The following collection of tips are adapted from the book “Spiritual and Religious Competencies in Clinical Practice: Guidelines for Psychotherapists and Mental Health Professionals” by Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D., and Shelley Scammell, Psy.D.
1.Inquire with your client about how often she utilizes spirituality as a resource during challenging times.
Vieten and Scammell say that a few simple questions can help shed light on some of the ways you may be able to leverage your clients spiritual practices to improve treatment outcomes.
Ask your client if he has any religious or spiritual practices that are particularly soothing during emotionally challenging times.
Inquire about the extent to which spiritual or religious beliefs factor into important decisions he makes. These are just two examples of the kinds of questions that these can illuminate potential resources and help you understand your client more fully.
2. Determine if the client has a former spiritual or religious practice that he may be missing and gently investigate what it might take to re-establish that practice.
If a client identifies as Catholic, but has not been to church in several months, it may be useful to try to help her make contact with the value this particular ritual has in her life. This is a great way to clarify what truly matters to her and to help her get in touch with her values.
Often times, spiritual or religious practices are closely connected to things like community, social connection and moral beliefs, which tie in closely with a client’s sense of purpose and meaning. Identifying the role such practices play in his life can go a long way in helping him to align his behaviors in a way that reflects what matters most to him.
It may also be clinically useful to get a feel for whether there are things that your client has always wanted to do, but hasn’t. For example, perhaps she has always wanted to try meditation or yoga, but has been held back by fears about what to expect, or about not knowing anyone in the group.
Take advantage of any opportunities that arise to help the client pursue potentially meaningful activities, even when it means facing thing that scare them.
3. When appropriate, utilize divination tools to help clients get in touch with their spirituality.
When it comes to helping clients access their inner wisdom, there are a variety of available tools that can be incredibly useful in clinical settings. It can be somewhat of a professional risk to integrate such tools, and is always advisable to use your discretion based on what you know about the client and his or her comfort level with alternatives to traditional psychotherapy.
If you do determine that a client is open to exploring, you might try to incorporate tools such as traditional tarot, oracle, animal medicine and goddess cards, which can help re-frame situations, provide new perspectives, or function to crystallize or reaffirm existing beliefs.
Guiding clients toward exercises with exploratory journaling, noticing the content of their dreams, or visualizations can also help them access and build a connection with their inner spiritual resources.
4. Help your client understand the utility that spiritual and religious practices play as potentially useful tools for working through challenges in daily life.
It’s unlikely that most clients will show up to therapy having read the latest research that supports spiritual and religious practices as tools for psychological well-being.
While it’s probably overkill to provide a complete annotated references list, if a client is spiritually or religiously inclined, it may be helpful to share with them some of the ways they can use these resources in the therapeutic process.
Because clinical psychology has traditionally aimed to provide clear distinctions between science and spirituality, it may even come as a surprise to your client that the spiritual practices they participate in or might like to participate in, can be beneficial to their psychological health.
“Religious or spiritual coping mechanisms can become part of the coping tool kit you offer clients,” write Vieten and Scammell.
5. Consider incorporating some spiritually-based interventions into the treatment plan.
Certain practices, like mindfulness, have been proven through research to be particularly well-suited for specific issues. For example, if your client is stressed or struggling with addictive behaviors, they may be a good candidate for a mindfulness-based intervention that will help them make more regular contact with the present moment, practice non-judgmental awareness, and defuse from potentially triggering thoughts and urges.
Vieten and Scammell suggest briefly sharing evidence that such practices are beneficial for a particular challenge and even offering links or PDFs of articles or abstracts if the client expresses interest. Clients will likely appreciate your efforts to help them understand the science behind why a particular practice may be beneficial to their specific issue or circumstance.
Spiritual image available from Shutterstock.