Coping When the World is out of Control: One Way Spirituality is Helpful

My last Sunday Series article introduced my current sub-series: an exploration of Spiritually-Integrated Psychotherapy. Exploring this modality of psychotherapy is important to me, as I offer it to clients who would like it, and believe firmly that spirituality has an ethical place in the therapy office. 

The spiritual dimension of a person is indeed meaningful. It can offer resources or roadblocks, solutions or scars, and these are important to bring to therapy just like anything else. Today’s article will start the exploration of how spirituality can be an aid to a person by digging into a study on paralyzed victims of tragic accidents.

For some people, spirituality or religion can be a pillar of their personal resilience. Let’s explore the exemplary study. Researchers Bulman and Wortman studied whether the ways that people think after being victim to severe accidents betters or worsens their coping abilities. Their research was not set out to touch upon spirituality, and yet they found that people’s spiritual beliefs kept coming into their findings again and again. Their 1977 study included interviews with people who were paralyzed by traumatizing accidents. The study’s goal was to be able to categorize which ways of thinking were linked to positive coping, and which to negative coping. Positive coping was defined as accepting the reality of their paralysis, being positive about the rehabilitation process and participating in it, and feeling motivated to improve and gain physical independence (Bulman and Wortman, 1977). Ninety-seven percent of the paralyzed interviewees asked the question “Why me?” in regards to their accident. Bulman and Wortman recorded how each of their interviewees answered that question. They also measured each interviewees religiosity, using a scale developed by Poppleton and Pilkington (1963), detailed the ways in which each interviewee attributed blame about the accident and many more factors.

Once Bulman and Wortman collected all their data, they quantified it and analyzed it. Their analysis yielded interesting results. For example, they found that many interviewees attributed blame for the accident to themselves, even when, objectively, the accident was entirely someone else’s fault, or pure chance. Interviewees who attributed some or all blame to themselves tended to be more religious than those who did not. Interviewees who attributed more blame to themselves also ended up coping better than interviewees who attributed more blame to others. Those interviewees who both attributed more blame to themselves and did not ruminate on wishing they had avoided things preceding the accident coped the best of all. This matches modern research showing that taking responsibility for what happens to you increases well-being (Howarth, Swain and Treharne, 2011; Smith, 2005). 

When looking at the interviewees’ variety of answers to “Why me?”, Bulman and Wortman sorted answers into six thematic categories: predetermination, probability, chance, "God had a reason," deservedness, and reevaluation of the event as positive. Bulman and Wortman noted that the most popular way to answer “Why me?” was to invoke God or spirituality in some way, even though many of the interviewees did not note themselves as religious. Such answers ranged from being Christian-based, discussing Bible stories like those of Job, to being non-religion-based, such as trusting fate or a nebulous Creator (Bulman and Wortman, 1977). Some of the interviewees who were the least religious were still satisfied by answers to “Why me?” that involved probability, even if this wasn’t mathematically reasonable. Invoking probability (for example, “It was simply probable that a bad thing like this would happen to me eventually”), while not spiritual, still has the effect of creating meaning and explanation, an effect that, I would argue, is a core provision of religion and spirituality. In other words, there is almost something “spiritual” in the answers of these non-religious interviewees, in that they too sought the creation of meaning. There was one interviewee who had no answer for “Why me?” and he was one of the worst copers of the entire study.

As detailed by Bulman and Wortman, the results suggest that people are likely to believe they have more causal ability than they actually do and that leaning on this and on spiritual reasoning in order to gain meaning from the tragedy, for example to learn for next time, trust that it will be okay or see oneself as more resilient, aid coping greatly. Fitting one’s tragedy into one’s worldview, whether it’s a worldview of God, fate, probability or otherwise, is predictive of healing. Bulman and Wortman note that it’s not important to have a worldview where one is in control, but rather a worldview that feels meaningful and orderly (1977). Even if it’s God in control of a moment instead of oneself, he can be trusted and known. From here springs healing. 

The provision of meaning is just one of the ways that spirituality can be an aid to a person’s resilience. Stay tuned for future Sunday Series articles detailing more ways it aids resilience, ways it can harm well-being and more investigating into the ethics of integrating spirituality into psychotherapy.


Bulman, R. J., & Wortman, C. B. (1977). Attributions of blame and coping in the "real world": Severe accident victims react to their lot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(5), 351-363.

Howarth, A. M., Swain, N., & Treharne, G. J. (2011). Taking personal responsibility for well-being increases birth satisfaction of first time mothers. Journal of Health Psychology, 16(8), 1221–1230.

Smith, A. (2005). Responsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life. Ethics, 115(2), 236-271.

Poppleton, P. K., & Pilkington, G. W. (1963). The measurement of religious attitudes in a university population. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 2(1), 20-36.

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