A new paper by Carmen Oemig Dworsky et al. in the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science (reference below; only abstract available though I’ve got the whole paper) deals with the effects of spiritual struggle and its avoidance on people’s mental health. It’s a long read, but in short the authors surveyed 307 people (recruited from Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” work database) who were self-described as experiencing spiritual struggles. They were then surveyed for indices of mental health (anxiety and depression) and for their levels of “experiential avoidance” (EA), which the authors define as “efforts to escape or avoid unwanted internal experience, even when efforts to do so are harmful or contrary to personal goals.”
Science Daily, which, as its wont, basically regurgitated Case Western Reserve University’s press release, gives a summary. The upshot, as the paper summarizes below, is that those undergoing spiritual struggles show poorer mental health if they’re also showing EA, avoiding dealing with the struggles:
The present study examined the relations between experiential avoidance and mental health in a sample of people experiencing spiritual struggles. The first hypothesis predicted that experiential avoidance (EA) would be negatively associated with indices of psychological, physical, and spiritual mental health. Consistent with the prediction, general EA was associated with poorer mental health in all areas. With respect to avoidance tied specifically to the struggle, similar findings emerged. It was also hypothesized that the relationships between spiritual struggles and poorer mental health would be stronger among people with higher than lower levels of experiential avoidance. Some support was found for the prediction that higher levels of experiential avoidance exacerbate the relation between spiritual struggles and adverse symptoms. These findings were particularly robust for the measure of struggle-specific experiential avoidance.
The paper concludes that therapists should help people recognize and embrace their spiritual struggles. Senior author Julie Exline explains in the press release, adding other implications of the paper (my emphasis):
An unwillingness to accept spiritual struggle could contribute to major social ills, leading to lost opportunities to engage with people of different faith beliefs and backgrounds and come to view them as threatening.
“This avoidance may lead to the rejection of whole groups of people based on their religious differences or perceived incongruence between, for example, their sexuality or gender-based identity and religious teachings,” Exline said.
Mental health providers may find it useful to help clients with spiritual struggles face their difficulties in a more proactive way.
“People seem to be more emotionally healthy if they’re able to accept troubling thoughts,” Exline said. “Looking at spiritual doubts in an objective way seems to help. You may or may not work through them, but at least you can tolerate having them.”
Avoidance itself is not a problem; rather, the behavior can become problematic when escaping becomes harmful or contrary to personal goals and sets a rigid pattern of experiencing and responding to the world.
“Regular spiritual avoidance can make it difficult to identify, work toward or experience the qualities that lend a sense of purpose to life,” she said.
Using emotional and cognitive energy to push thoughts away will not stop them from continuing to intrude over time.
“Continually being re-visited by these thoughts can create strains on emotional health, especially if a person sees this kind of questioning as morally unacceptable and dangerous,” Exline said.
One problem with this study, not mentioned by the authors in the “limitations, implications, and future directions” section of the paper, is that it deals solely with spiritual struggles. What they really need is a control group—people experiencing other struggles (perhaps relationship or job struggles)—to see if EA has the same effect there. It’s not clear why the emphasis is on spirituality. Further, the conclusion about how EA could exacerbate interfaith disharmony and rejection of gays seems unwarranted by the data themselves.
Now, who do you think supported this research? Yep, you guessed it:
Templeton works in mysterious ways, so I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide how the study fits into Templeton’s agenda, which is to promote harmony between science and faith, as well as to show that science gives evidence for the divine.
Dworsky, C. K. O., K. I. Pargament, S. Wong and J. Exline. 2016. Suppressing spiritual struggles: the role of experiential avoidance in mental health. J. Contextual Behav. Sci. 5: 258-265