November 1st, 2011

Is your client spiritual?

Asking early may help treat their anxiety

The next time you’re preparing for a new client intake who suffers anxiety and impatience, adding a few questions about spirituality and its importance to your client’s daily life might lead toward more productive sessions.

That was the major take-away from a McLean Hospital study that reported those who believe in a kind God worry less and better handle life’s unpredictable nature than those who believe God is indifferent, unkind or doesn’t exist at all.

David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., is an assistant in psychology at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. He presented the paper based on the study that was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology to the American Psychological Association in August. His message: learn to ask what may feel like awkward questions.

“Spirituality plays an important role in many people’s lives, but as psychologists, we’re not really trained to speak to people about it,” says Rosmarin. Further, he adds, few graduate programs offer formalized training or even electives about approaching the subject in therapy. After McLean’s study, however, Rosmarin feels that learning people’s religious beliefs so they can be integrated into their treatment regimens could fit well with their therapy, especially if patients are religious.

Here’s why. Two different drivers back into parked cars in a shopping lot. The first ruminates over the terrible person they are for being so careless; the second self-soothes by remembering they are generally careful and that the incident was isolated and accidental. Each driver will come away from the situation with vastly different anxiety levels.

But according to Rosmarin, that’s because “if someone has a belief about God – that God loves them, cares for them and is benevolent – they are going to have fewer negative emotions… than someone who feels God hates them or is out to punish them.” In fact, the latter would more likely think that thanks to their fender bender, they now really have something to worry about.

The results on which the paper was based came from two separate studies. One questioned 332 Christian and Jewish participants about their trust versus mistrust that God would watch over them during emergencies. Findings supported Rosmarin’s beliefs and revealed that people with a more positive view on God had a greater ability to tolerate uncertainty and worried less.

In the second study, 125 subjects participated in integrated spirituality training, comprising two weeks of watching an online video program designed to promote a positive spin on spirituality.

“It sounds a little radical for clinical psychologists,” Rosmarin says, “but people really liked the treatment. I have had 500 people reach out to me [about this study] and if you know anything about randomized clinical trials, the biggest problem is with recruitments.”

Rosmarin emphasizes that the two studies were not designed to compare believers against non-believers. Instead, findings help psychologists better design regimens for patients based on their own core beliefs.

McLean has created a spirituality and cognitive therapy group as an optional program for patients to talk about their spirituality. However, Rosmarin encourages clinical psychologists to learn to talk about people’s religion. The best place to start? Ask if religion is a part of clients’ lives. If the answer is yes, find out if it’s an everyday part and whether they would like it to be part of their treatment. Chances are their ability to find peace in chaos may be only a prayer away.

By Jennifer E Chase

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