The Role of Spirituality and Religion in Therapy

Janay Bailey, Mental Health Counselor October 6, 2021

Religion and spirituality aren’t easy topics to bring up, but doing a deep dive with your therapist can benefit your mental well-being more than you might expect.

Discussing religion and spirituality can be nerve-wracking. These beliefs are woven into our identities and are so deeply personal—they significantly impact how we understand the world. 

With the frightening yet rewarding experience of beginning therapy, it’s understandable why so many people don’t talk about this often-overlooked aspect of themselves. So many of us were taught to avoid discussing religion and spirituality in social situations, fearing arguments and alienation. But therapy is the place for taboo topics. 

So, does spirituality belong in therapy? Can religion and therapy work together?  

Be Honest With Your Therapist

You might feel scared about how these two topics will affect your therapist’s perception of you. Do they practice a belief system in their life that clashes with mine? Do they have a similar belief system, but maybe they are unable to say? It’s normal for all these questions to race through your mind, and you might be socially conditioned to hold back. 

But when you hide your religious and spiritual beliefs from your therapist, it can cause a blockage in the therapeutic relationship—keeping you from fully opening up. As the weeks go by, you could end up feeling increasingly distant from your therapist. 

Humantold encourages you to push past those anxious thoughts and fears because exploring religion and spirituality can open many doors. Holding feelings and emotions back isn’t what therapy is about, while it prevents therapists from accessing all the information they need to help you improve your mental health. Opening up about these sensitive topics keeps you connected to your therapist. 

Try to remember that your therapist has a duty to remain unbiased, professional, and supportive as you explore religion and spirituality. If you don’t feel comfortable, it could be time to find a new therapist.

All Beliefs Are Welcome

Though spirituality and religion are different, we discuss the two together because they’re essential to your well-being—no matter how involved or not involved you are with either.

If you don’t consider yourself spiritual or religious, that’s okay too. People come to therapy to understand who they are and what their roles and purposes are in life. Talking about personal religious and spiritual beliefs with your therapist could be the key to unlocking doors. Whether you identify with a particular religion, meditate weekly, or connect more to being a spiritual individual, it’s all worth discussing in therapy.

Religion vs. Spirituality

For clarity—a person who is “religious” worships a specific deity or god. A spiritual individual may have a higher power that is less specific. For example, this could be revering nature or meditating on one's inner essence. 

It’s important to note that spirituality and religion can also overlap, but there are few clearly defined barriers between the two. Religion follows a pre-existing set of beliefs passed down from a group, while your spirituality focuses more on individual practices and interpretations.

Whether you know your values and needs in therapy or have difficulty explaining your religious or spiritual beliefs, these are all excellent concepts to discuss with your therapist. It requires a bit of fearlessness, but it’s worth it. The strength of these discussions comes from gaining a better understanding of your sense of self, purpose, and the sacredness of life.

There are three main benefits to talking about religion and spirituality in therapy:

  1. Coping strategies: It could allow you and your therapist to form a set of personalized coping strategies for your specific mental health needs. For example, meditating, praying, visiting a church, connecting with nature, or practicing yoga are all ways you can build on this approach. Other beneficial talking points with your therapist may include how often you partake in these activities and in what capacity. 
  2. Psychological well-being: Exploring religion and spirituality can bring a new sense of psychological well-being—therapy sessions can leave you feeling lighter and ready to conquer what lies ahead. 
  3. Resiliency: Diving into religion and spirituality is an opportunity to enhance resiliency, improving other facets of life.

Keep in mind that, for some people, discussing religion and spirituality can trigger trauma that comes directly from these sensitive subjects. You may start therapy to address different aspects of your life, but during psychotherapy, discover underlying religious and spiritual trauma that you were previously unaware of. 

When the time is right, you want to be sure to explore this with a therapist you trust and someone that has a solid clinical background and understanding of the effects of trauma. The potential harm that religion and spirituality might have caused you deserves appropriate care and attention. Addressing this damage could set you up to live a more fulfilled life.

Therapy Is the Perfect Place to Begin

Whether you seek therapy to deepen your relationship with your higher power, become more compassionate, get in touch with your spiritual essence, or even cope with the pain that religion or spirituality has caused you, it’s all welcome in the therapy space.

Religion and Spirituality in Psychotherapy

We offer these tips to aid you while embarking on this transformative journey:

  1. Set clear goals that help you identify what you want to get out of exploring religion and spirituality.
  2. Be mindful that your therapist is not judging you. They support you no matter what you say about religion and spirituality. 
  3. Set clear boundaries with your therapist about what you are open to discuss and what you are not ready to talk about.

The motivation for exploring beliefs is unique to each person. Be open, expressive, and honest in the journey, and know that there are healing opportunities for you when you’re ready.

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