Religion and Psychology as Coping Strategies: The Example of Chronic Pain

Abstract

Coping strategies show different faces depending on the coping demand. Everyday hassles, stressful though they may be, elicit and require different approaches than do situations of overload and hopelessness. Persons with chronic pain, typically resulting from a traumatic injury, for example, face losses and other changes in their lives to which it is difficult to attach any silver lining. Some find consolation in religious belief, others find their beliefs severely tested. Surrender and prayerful acceptance are typical strategies derived from (Judeo-Christian) religious belief and practice, although prayer may also be for healing or other help as well as for acceptance, strength to endure suffering, or even gratitude for suffering. Eastern religious traditions may be still more relevant to suffering that cannot be resolved or even alleviated. Psychology, at least in its popular version (whether derived from self-help media or other “pop psychological” sources, or from personal psychotherapeutic experiences) offers alternative coping strategies, indeed the very concept of coping epitomizes the psychological approach of framing life dilemmas in the most positive and active terms possible. However, this traditional psychological approach may not be experienced as empathic by persons in situations that are objectively hopeless, or perceived as hopeless, and/or those experiencing despair or near-despair. An analogy may be drawn between those who do not find psychological coping helpful and those who lack the religious faith needed to find consolation in religion. Psychological coping is generally presented as scientific and as such, draws some of its power to persuade from the credibility that “science” enjoys. The widely-held belief in “science” has been noted to resemble religious faith; psychological coping thus represents a kind of “religion of psychology.” On the other hand, recent developments in psychotherapy, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), as well as older but resurgent existential psychotherapies, represent some convergence between traditional psychological positivism and the arguably deeper religious or spiritual approach. Indeed existentialism has always been characterized by contention between its religious and its secular if not atheist strains.

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