Therapy and the Spiritual Life

This morning I'm doing something I never dreamed that I would do: I'm going to see a therapist.

All my life, I've placed myself firmly in the category of Not the Kind of Person Who Goes to Therapy. First of all, I was vaguely suspicious of it as a general concept. I'd heard horror stories from friends who went to therapists who convinced them they had problems they didn't have, presumably to keep the high monthly fees rolling in. On top of that, I simply didn't see how talking to a professional counselor would help anything. I've always had a good network of friends and family members whom I could count on during difficult times, and I would turn to them if there was anything I needed to get off my chest. My conversion to Catholicism in my late 20s pretty much sealed my opinion on this issue: Now that I had prayer, the sacraments, and a wise spiritual director, what use could I possibly have for secular psychology?

What I was missing, that I have only recently come to understand, is that sometimes traumatic experiences can impact us in a way that goes beyond the purely emotional realm, and is closer to being a physical malady than a purely spiritual one. For example, in the book Getting Past Your Past, author Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., points out that the memory control center of the brain, the hippocampus, can actually shrink in people who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Shapiro developed a technique in which therapy clients can use eye movement techniques combined with guided imagery, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), to help rebuild this area of their brains. She writes:

Happily, as brain scans have now shown, it is possible for the hippocampus to regrow. Although there has been limited research in this area, one study recently showed that 8 to 12 sessions of EMDR memory processing for people with PTSD were associated with an average 6% increase in the volume of the hippocampus. These effects were maintained one year later.

When I was considering therapy for myself in the aftermath of recent traumatic events, I spoke with Licensed Professional Counselor Jennifer Madere to gain a better understanding of how this all works within the larger context of the spiritual life. I found Ms. Madere through, and shared my concerns about therapy being misused as a replacement for prayer and trust in God. She offered a great explanation, one that really resonated with my own experience, in which she analogized it to stomach indigestion: If you had a stomach ailment in which your digestive system were unable to digest a certain food, treating the physical cause would go hand-in-hand with praying about it. Similarly, sometimes we have traumatic experiences that our brains are unable to "digest," and certain therapy techniques can help break down those memories and allow our brains to incorporate them in a healthy way.

This is something that Dr. Shapiro talks about in her book as well. She gives the example of having an argument with your coworker. Under normal circumstances, you might feel stress or anger in the moment, but after a little time your mind takes what can be learned from the situation, discards the rest, and stores it as a normal memory -- i.e., it has been processed. But sometimes an experience impacts us so profoundly that it overwhelms our brains' normal abilities, and the memory is stored in a raw, unprocessed form. Shapiro writes:

Sadly, disturbing experiences, whether major traumas or other kinds of upsetting events, can overwhelm the system. When that happens, the intense emotional and physical disturbance caused by the situation prevents the information processing system from making the internal connections needed to take it to a resolution. Instead, the memory of the situation becomes stored in the brain as you experienced it. What you saw and felt, the image, the emotions, the physical sensations and the thoughts become encoded in memory in their original, unprocessed form. So, whenever you see the coworker you argued with, rather than being able to have a calm chat, the anger or fear comes flooding back.

I have been working on this "processing" of traumatic memories in therapy sessions, and have found that not only is this therapy not detracting from my spiritual life, but it is enhancing it. When we offer up the difficult moments of our lives to God, we can find peace and healing -- but first we have to be able to offer them up. What I found was that, before I began seeing a counselor, I was not allowing God to be part of these moments at all. Whenever I tried to access those memories in prayer, I would become so overwhelmed and upset that I would stop praying. Even though the events were recent, I was already falling into a pattern of shoving them down into my subconscious, trying to pretend they never happened at all -- and you can't offer something to God that you don't admit exists.  

It's important to note that there are a wide variety of therapy techniques, and not all of them involve bringing up details of traumatic events (Dawn Eden makes some important points about that here as it relates to survivors of childhood sexual abuse). I happen to be doing a therapy that does involve visualizing traumatic memories in a safe way, but that might not be the best method for everyone. The point is that sometimes therapy techniques, even secular ones, can be an asset to a strong spiritual life.  

If you're having difficulty finding healing in any area, I strongly recommend at least exploring the possibility of seeing a licensed counselor. Before I started therapy, I had slammed the door on those troubling memories. They festered in darkness, where nobody was allowed to access them -- not me, not even God. For me, the process of therapy has been the process of cracking that door open, little by little. It may take a while, but it has begun to open, and finally those bad moments can be bathed in the healing light of Christ.