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PTSD: National Center for PTSD

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Spirituality Resilience


Clergy Toolkit


Resilience and Growth

Clergy members may be able to help Service members or Veterans by encouraging behaviors that are associated with resilience and growth. It is likely that spirituality and religiousness provide a foundation for resilient coping in the face of difficult traumatic event(s) and loss events through a meaning-making process. Spirituality also plays a role in coping with grief and loss.

In their review of the role of religion and spirituality in adjustment following bereavement, Wortman and Park8 noted that although many of the studies they reviewed have limitations that prevent making causal inferences, generally positive correlations were found for many dimensions of spirituality and positive psychological outcomes. They also noted that making meaning from a loved one's death appeared to be an important pathway by which spirituality and positive health outcomes were associated.

Thus positive religious coping (e.g., spiritual support, positive religious reframing of stressors, and spiritual connectedness) can help buffer major life stresses, while negative religious coping (e.g., difficulties and anger with God, negative encounters with other believers, and internal religious guilt and doubt) is frequently associated with worse outcomes9-12.


Although Service members are highly likely to experience traumatic events, most people exposed to traumatic events do not develop PTSD or other mental health disorders13. Resilience is the process of "adapting to and bouncing back from adversity," i.e., to bend without breaking14.

Bending Vs. Breaking

Through their detailed interviews with former POWs, Special Forces instructors, and civilian survivors of trauma, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney have identified ten coping mechanisms that foster resilience in the face of trauma15. While the authors note that other factors may be important as well, those listed below were the ones interviewees described as crucial:

  1. Maintaining optimism
  2. Using cognitive and behavioral strategies to face fear
  3. Being guided by a personal moral compass
  4. Drawing on religion and spirituality
  5. Getting support from family and peers
  6. Finding a role model to emulate
  7. Being physically fit
  8. Being mentally fit
  9. Practicing cognitive and emotional flexibility
  10. Finding meaning and purpose in life

Posttraumatic Growth

Although traumatic stress is clearly harmful, some trauma survivors will say that trauma has produced growth or maturity in their lives. This phenomenon, called posttraumatic growth, has received attention among researchers. Posttraumatic growth has been defined as "positive personal changes that result from the struggle to deal with trauma and its psychological consequences"16. It appears that different individuals may have different trajectories of growth and that the degree to which posttraumatic growth is palliative (i.e., providing comfort in the face of trauma), versus constructive (i.e., generating personal growth or transformation), may change over time17. One consistent element of the literature is that spirituality is frequently a core component of posttraumatic growth.

How Clergy Can Support Resilience and Posttraumatic Growth

Clergy members can play a significant role helping trauma survivors build resilience and identify positive changes related to trauma. The following are some suggestions of ways clergy can be helpful. These were recommendations for a posttraumatic growth component of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, a soldier resilience program created by the US Army.

  • Educate survivors that posttraumatic growth is a process that occurs over time, and encourage patience and persistence in the journey toward meaning-making.
  • Help individuals understand that it is normal to have a response to traumatic events and that these reactions can be a precursor to posttraumatic growth.
  • Encourage people to learn skills in managing strong emotions, such as anxiety. This can be through spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, or mindfulness, or through mental health techniques such as guided imagery or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Create a safe place where people can gain comfort with self-disclosure, and with allowing others to provide emotional and spiritual support.
  • Work with survivors to examine their values and beliefs to develop robust life principles that can accommodate future challenges.
Caution should be taken in promoting posttraumatic growth, as efforts to focus on posttraumatic growth prior to the person experiencing it themselves can be interpreted as an unwelcome attempt to minimize the unique burdens and challenges that need to be overcome. Because the majority of people who face traumatic events are able to find some benefit in their experience, experts in the field of posttraumatic growth recommend highlighting growth in character and gain of skills by pointing them out only when exhibited, which may enhance the person's self-esteem and self-efficacy18.

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