Helen Land on Spirituality in Talk Therapy


In her insightful book Spirituality, Religion, and Faith in Psychotherapy, Helen Land offers the view that therapists who avoid issues of religion and spirituality may be overlooking one of the greatest sources of resilience or even a key to psychological dilemmas among many of their clients.

Land, associate professor with the USC School of Social Work says:

“We are becoming more and more of a secular society, but I think this idea of what people hold as sacred, whether it’s religious or not, will always be useful. Everyone has some sort of philosophy of life, and it doesn’t have to be connected to a deity or organized religion.”

It’s true that in a general sense, spirituality has found its way into clinical practice. But it is usually seen as a source of wellness for individuals dealing with trauma, death, or other difficult experiences.

Few therapists really probe the sacred beliefs of their clients or how those beliefs influence their ability to cope with problems or may actually be causing those problems.

Limitations of Talk Therapy

Her book outlines a range of strategies to incorporate three broad domains of sacred content into psychotherapy, mainly through the use of expressive methods like art, movement, and music therapy.

According to Land:

“Often people are stuck in concrete thinking. These kinds of issues—spirituality, religion, and faith—are very hard to put into words. Talk therapy has its limitations.”

Via engaging the creative and intuitive aspects of the brain, clients can begin to unlock and process memories and experiences of trauma or pain, she says. The book includes a discussion of how the process plays out on the neurobiological level when using these expressive practices, with research evidence that supports these methods as effective.

Land says:

“The expressive traditions are horribly underutilized. Basically they have been the domain of art therapists and music therapists and so on. There are many interventions that can be used quite easily and have way more robust research in terms of their efficacy than most of us even know about.”

Coping with AIDS

Land’s interest in the sacred world as a potentially important factor in therapy grew from her work leading support groups during the height of the AIDS crisis.

During a research study on how people cope with the stress of care giving for a loved one with AIDS, she saw that many times these caregivers would not tell other family members or friends about the disease.

So how were they handling this crushing personal burden?

Explained Land:

“The thing that came up over and over again was, I turn to God or I pray. Many people used these spiritual and religious coping strategies.”

Illness, death, and trauma often spur individuals to consider previously unacknowledged existential questions, according to Land.

For example, she worked with a woman whose family had been killed by a drunk driver when she was a senior in high school, leaving her devastated and angry. In another instance, a woman in her 30s died from ovarian cancer, leaving behind her husband and 18-month-old daughter.

Speaking of the struggle to resolve their loss with their spiritual or religious convictions, Land says:

“It can be very disabling for people who are in mourning. Some people would maybe deepen their spirituality and call on it. Other people would say they truly felt let down by their belief system.”

A Delicate Balance

One part of the book describes a new assessment model Land developed to help evaluate the sacred beliefs of clients in addition to the standard psychological, biological, and social factors.

Appreciating how their clients see religion and spirituality can assist therapists decide if a particular sacred domain is influencing their ability to recover from trauma. Land believes that keeping balance in the sacred triad of religion, faith, and spirituality can be critical to psychological well-being.

Each area has strengths and drawbacks, she says.

Religion tends to trigger the most difficulty. It can be a particular problem if individuals are struggling with certain tenets that conflict with their personal identity, such as dogma regarding sexual orientation. In such cases, religion can be very scarring.

“But some people have problems with loss of faith,” Land says. “Other people have problems doing lots of rituals and prayers but really not having a very enriched spiritual life, if any.”

Further Reading:

Spirituality, Religion, and Faith in Psychotherapy
Helen Land
Lyceum Books (October 13, 2014)

Spiritual Diversity in Social Work Practice: The Heart of Helping
Edward R. Canda
Oxford University Press; Second Edition edition (October 1, 2009)

Wrestling with Our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness, and the Journey to Wholeness
Nancy Kehoe
Jossey-Bass; 1 edition (May 26, 2009)