The Hidden Power of Faith

Photo by Ben White
Photo by Ben White
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The Challenge: Surviving trauma is difficult enough; growing in its aftermath is often inconceivable

The Science: Research increasingly demonstrates the positive effect faith can have post-trauma

The Solution: The healthy practice of faith can be an invaluable asset to posttraumatic healing

L ast year I attended the U.S. Army’s resilience boot camp. Together with 180 sergeants in camo fatigues, I learned what it takes to become more resilient and face stress more calmly — something nobody takes more seriously than the army.

More than ever before, the U.S. Army is dealing with staggering numbers of soldiers who come back from war depressed, angry, and anxious. Every day, 22 veterans commit suicide — that’s one suicide every 65 minutes.

Because of this, ex-POW Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, together with a legion of resilience specialists, started a small insurgence that aimed for a full-scale culture change in the army. She wanted to shift away from the focus on physical fitness to an emphasis on psychological resilience.

The army rolled out Rhonda’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program in December 2009, a $160 million program in which every soldier participates. Soldiers begin the day with mindfulness meditation, because the effects of meditation to heal trauma have been widely proven. The army now even includes “spiritual fitness” in its goals.

Why? Because spiritual growth is one of the hallmarks of posttraumatic growth.

Would your faith help or hinder recovery?

After decades of working with bereaved parents, veterans, and other trauma survivors, University of North Carolina psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term posttraumatic growth — and their definition includes spiritual growth. As Tedeschi told me, up to 90 percent of trauma survivors eventually experience new appreciation for life, new perspectives, deeper relationships with others, or increased spirituality.

Faith, for instance, is how former congresswoman Gabby Giffords summons the strength to continue struggling to regain health after the near-fatal shooting that injured her brain. God is also the reason “soul surfer” Bethany Hamilton got back on her surfboard after a shark bit off her arm. Bethany takes the shark bite as God’s test, and credits her survival to prayer. “From what seems like such a horrible thing, God has just brought glory to Himself,” she says.

However, as I learned while researching the science of posttraumatic growth for my book Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs, there is a caveat: not everybody finds faith in the aftermath of a crisis. In fact, many lose faith.

For instance, nearly half the 111 women who participated in an Israeli study felt their religious beliefs significantly weakened in the wake of sexual trauma, while eight percent said their faith had strengthened. (Read the full study in Traumatology here: “Losing my Religion: A Preliminary Study of Changes in Belief Pattern after Sexual Assault.”)

So, why does faith increase for some and weaken for others after a traumatic experience? Turns out it’s not which religion you follow or how strong your faith is — it’s whether or not you can integrate the traumatic event into your core beliefs.

“It depends on the degree to which people have enough flexibility in their belief system to make sense of that event within that system,” Tedeschi said. “If the system has enough breadth to it, someone might feel sad, lost, or upset, but their core beliefs don’t crumble, and that’s an important distinction.”

Is your God big enough to hold your sorrow?

Let’s look at a few real-life examples of how faith — or lack of — can impact healing.

In a four-year study with HIV patients, 45 percent showed an increase of spirituality after the diagnosis, while only 13 percent decreased. The striking conclusion of the study is that increased spirituality predicted a measurably slower disease progression, and religious patients had a significantly greater preservation of healthy blood cells. In other words, faith can have a tremendous impact on our health — if our faith can carry us through the crisis.

My friend Alain Beauregard, a Canadian business consultant whose story I detail in Bouncing Forward, didn’t have strong faith before he was diagnosed with inoperable, terminal bladder cancer. His doctors gave him six months to live, at best. However, in dealing with the shock of his diagnosis, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to Buddhist meditation and stunned his doctors by healing himself. Now he’s convinced that “faith can move mountains” — and cancer cells.

“Because the worst thing when you want to heal is to have no faith,” Alain says. “Yes, doctors and treatments can help, but on the spiritual level, it is so helpful to believe in something. Which could be just a cosmic principle, Virgin Mary for my mother, Christ, Allah, light, whatever. If you have no faith in something greater than yourself, your prayer lacks power.”

If we connect with a compassionate force greater than ourselves, we have found a powerful ally in healing. At the same time, losing faith has an equally profound — though negative — impact on healing.

The HIV patients in the study mentioned above who lost faith or believed God was punishing them saw stunted recovery and had measurably less healthy blood cells than their peers.

Here’s a personal example. When my sister-in-law Tami lost her only child, she was angry at God for allowing her beautiful three-year-old daughter to die after several open-heart surgeries. In the long hours in the intensive care unit, Tami poured her heart out in prayer, but her prayers were not answered. “God, how could you let this happen to me?” was her soul-wrenching outcry.

Eventually Tedeschi’s findings about posttraumatic growth became true for her, but it took her many years, almost a decade of wrestling with deep questions about the meaning of life, to discover a new faith in a different kind of God.

Religious faith helps if survivors can make sense of their trauma within their belief system, but when a crisis is seen as God’s punishment or instigates a wholesale questioning of one’s faith, the spiritual struggle adds a deeper dimension to the distress.

So, the question is not, God, how could you let this happen?

But rather, Is your God big enough to hold your sorrow?

This article first appeared on OnFaith.

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Michaela Haas

Michaela Haas

Michaela Haas, PhD, is the author of Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs (Atria/Enliven, October 2015) and Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Buddhism in the West. She has taught at the University of California Santa Barbara, the University of the West, and internationally. She is a reporter, coach, and avid meditator. She has been practicing Buddhist meditation for twenty years and combines powerful storytelling with scientific research and spiritual depth.
Michaela Haas

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