Religion and Spirituality in Coping with Stress

By Graham, Stephanie; Furr, Susan et al. | Counseling and Values, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Religion and Spirituality in Coping with Stress


Graham, Stephanie, Furr, Susan, Flowers, Claudia, Burke, Mary Thomas, Counseling and Values


Relations among and between religion, spirituality, and the ability to cope with stress were examined using a sample of 115 graduate students in counseling. Religion and spirituality positively correlated with coping with stress. Counseling students who expressed spirituality through religious beliefs had greater spiritual health and immunity to stressful situations than counseling students who identified themselves as spiritual but not religious. Counseling students with a religious/spiritual affiliation indicated more discomfort counseling clients hostile to religion compared with counseling students with a spiritual-only affiliation. The results have implications for preparing counseling students to work with clients with religious/spiritual issues.

Individuals striving to understand the meaning of and purpose for their struggles often look for guidance in the spiritual or religious realms. For example, most Americans have a religious faith, and many individuals rely on their religious faith to cope with their problems (Worthington, 1989). It is estimated that more than 90% of individuals living in the United States have a belief in God (Kroll & Sheehan, 1989). On the basis of these statistics, counseling professionals are likely to come in contact with clients who bring their religious faith or spirituality, or both, into the counseling session.

The differences between religion and spirituality need to be distinguished. Although some individuals express their spirituality through their religious faith, others do not. Religion generally refers to an integrated set of beliefs and activities (Corbett, 1990) whereas spirituality is seen as the meaning gained from life experiences (May, 1982), which may or may not be theistic in nature (Richards & Bergin, 1997; Shafranske & Gorsuch, 1984). A belief in God can be integrated with meaningful life experiences, but individuals without a belief in God or a higher power can also have spiritual and meaningful experiences in life (Stoll, 1989).

Religion has been seen as providing resources for coping with situations that are perceived as harmful or threatening by affecting how individuals assess their situations and their ability to cope (Pargament, 1990). Spilka, Shaver, and Kirkpatrick (1985) defined three roles that religion serves in the coping process: (a) It offers meaning to life, (b) it provides the individual with a greater sense of control over his or her situations, and (c) it builds self-esteem. For many individuals, religious institutions serve the purpose of providing members with a sense of community and family, particularly for members who have moved away from their families (Pargament, 1990). Religion may also provide a sense of identity because religion offers a set of beliefs, rituals, symbols, and traditions that define various aspects of the individual (Hammond, 1988).

Studies show that religion plays an important role in coping with stress. Prayer and faith in God have been cited as two of the most common coping resources (Belavich, 1995). Other coping resources include guidance from clergy and talking to God in prayer about how to deal with a particular stressful situation (Belavich, 1995). Hathaway and Pargament (1992) reported that when faced with a problem, religious individuals use a variety of religious coping resources that are drawn from spiritual, cognitive, behavioral, and social aspects of an individual's faith.

Individuals who have a positive spiritual identity feel connected to God's love, feel self-worth, have meaning and purpose in life, and are better able to fulfill their greatest potential (Richards & Bergin, 1997). In contrast, individuals who do not have a positive spiritual identity do not feel God's love in their life and lack purpose and meaning to life (Bergin et al., 1994; Richards & Potts, 1995). Research of the authors just cited led them to believe that having a positive spiritual identity is necessary for healthy development and life functioning. …

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