Psychological tool measures how trauma impacts religious beliefs

By Susan Gonsalves
November 10th, 2023
trauma and religious belief

Although religion and spirituality factor into many lives, research is scarce about how stress and traumatic events can impact and test an individual’s belief system.

In response to the question of why a loving God would allow suffering, Crystal Park, Ph.D, professor of psychological sciences at University of Connecticut, and a team of researchers developed a tool centered around theodicy.

The assessment tool measures to what degree people regard their difficult times to violate their understanding of God or where he is, according to Park.

“People want a stable environment and certainly health…so when something terrible happens, it creates a gap. Theodicy is the attempt to justify the co-existence or evil with God’s love,” she said.

Funded through a $1.24 million grant through the John Templeton Foundation, the study was published last spring in “Current Psychology.”

Park, also principal investigator at UConn’s Institute for Collaboration on Health Intervention and Policy, said the research team used a self-reporting measure. The national sampling reported via an online platform and consisted of individuals who believe in a single God and were experiencing a period of high stress or trauma.

Grieving individuals, cancer survivors, patients with various illnesses, college students coping with the death of a loved one, and others were among the participants.

Park envisions the tool being used in a psychologist’s private practice to try to grasp more fully what a client is going through.

She said, “They can ask clients about their experiences and highlight areas where to spend time with a therapeutic resolution.”

“We’re trying to understand suffering particularly in a faith context,” Park added. “People’s spiritual wellbeing, if important to them, does not have to be the focus of therapy … but the (practitioner) can at least inquire about it.”

To refine the set of scales, the research team consecutively conducted other studies. In addition to theodical struggle, they created measures of lament, intimacy with God, spiritual surrender, suffering with Jesus, and Christian flourishing.

Park noted they interviewed people via Zoom with diverse Christian denominations.

The data gathering from the various studies took three years.

“What emerged out of the interviews with people in chronic pain, cancer survivors, etc. is that it is very meaningful to know God is with them. Their suffering has larger value and meaning…They rely on God to help cope and manage what they are going through and find it helpful,” Park said.

Acknowledging that she is not as religious as others, Park said what stood out to her most about the research was “how central their constructs are.”

Another part of the grant funded the study of spiritual surrendering among Christians, Results were published in “Spirituality in Clinical Practice.”

The Christian Spiritual Surrender Scale (CSSS) was built from that work, measuring the relationship of choosing to submit to God’s will with wellbeing.

Park said the research could be used by clinicians working with people facing chronic or terminal health conditions to help them identify the benefits of surrendering.

Future studies will include people who experienced a natural disaster or who were in motor vehicle accidents.

M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, PhD., professor of psychology at Biola University, was co-investigator on the project.

The other members of the research team were Jason McMartin,Ph.D., associate professor of theology at Biola University; Eric J. Silverman, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Christopher Newport University; Kelly M. Kapic, Ph.D., professor of theology studies at Covenant College; Laura Shannonhouse, Ph.D., associate professor in counseling and psychological services at Georgia State University; and Jamie D. Aten, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.

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