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PTSD: National Center for PTSD

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Spirituality Meaning


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Meaning-Making and Grief

Spiritual and religious beliefs can either help or hinder trauma survivors in their attempts to create a healthy understanding of traumatic events, and ultimately make meaning from the events. If trauma survivors believe that their Higher Power failed them, or that the traumatic events were punishment for past sins, these beliefs could result in anger toward their Higher Power, and disconnection from spiritual or religious
support. If trauma survivors view their Higher Power as a source of support and comfort, they may be able to understand the traumatic experience as a challenge set before them that can be overcome. They may then explore what has been gained from the traumatic experience; have an increased connection with their Higher Power through the healing process; rely on their spiritual or religious support; and feel stronger for having lived through the traumatic event(s)24-26.

Crystal Park and colleagues27,28 have theorized about how meaning develops during exposure to traumatic and loss events, and how religion and spirituality can provide a framework that may aid the development of meaning. They suggest that two levels of meaning are involved in coping with trauma.

Two Levels of Meaning

Global Belief Structures

These are the internal cognitive structures that encompass an individual's understanding of the nature and functioning of the world; in other words, their expectations about how the world works. These global beliefs serve to guide life goals, direction, and functioning.
Appraised Meaning of Specific Events

These meanings include appraisals of events as threat, loss, or challenge, and also include causal attributions as to why and how these events occurred.
In some cases, an individual can conclude that his or her appraisals about the cause of events are in conflict with, and not reconcilable with, global beliefs. This causes distress, and since the traumatic event or loss cannot be changed or undone, it leads to re-evaluation of these appraisals. Re-evaluation can change either the basic understanding of how and why the traumatic loss occurred or change the larger global beliefs that are often existential or religious in nature. For some people, spiritual struggles, or "red-flags" as researcher Kenneth Pargament calls this experience29, can be associated with worse psychological outcomes30. Spiritual struggle can include loss of faith, anger at God, the perception that negative life events are punishment from God, strong feelings--sometimes exaggerated--of guilt or shame, and difficulty forgiving or feeling forgiven.

Meaning-making is also one of the recovery tasks for family and friends who lose a loved one to a traumatic event. Researchers who have studied meaning-making in the context of bereavement have suggested two important ways that individuals make new meaning31.

Two Ways Individuals Find Meaning

Meaning as Making Sense from Loss

This happens when survivors appraise an event as fitting their existing worldview. For example, people sometimes report making sense of a loss by attributing it to God's will, or by attributing it to a predictable possibility of war, or even by taking on some element of blame themselves.
Considering Positive Implications of Loss

Individuals will report gaining a greater appreciation for life, or experiencing personal growth from the event, or perhaps placing a higher value on their relationships following the loss. This has been called meaning through construed benefit.
Traumatic loss frequently makes finding meaning extraordinarily difficult. Individuals report that they find it impossible to make sense of the violent death of someone close to them, or to see any benefit derived from it.

On the other hand, survivors will often find meaning by providing resources or support to other victims and their families. For Service members, Veterans, and their families, organizations such as the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) provide both resources and opportunities to volunteer and support others who have experienced the deaths of loved ones in combat.

It is important to note that, at times, strong emotions that come from loss (e.g., sadness, anger or resentment) may actually provide the energy for actions that create meaning. Care providers should resist pathologizing these normal, yet strong, emotional reactions. Rather, they should help survivors reframe and understand these emotional reactions in a different way while also guiding them to use the energy linked to these reactions to do positive things that enhance the meaning making process and better memorialize the lost loved one.

PTSD Information Voice Mail: (802) 296-6300
Also see: VA Mental Health