Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Spiritual Struggles Psychology of Religion

Spiritual struggles are typically experiences of conflicts of religious or spiritual beliefs, practices, or experiences that cause or extend distress. The distress may be experienced as an emotion such as sadness, anger, or anxiety. In addition, people who struggle may wrestle with conflicting thoughts.

Spiritual struggles can be interpersonal and intrapersonal. Interpersonal spiritual struggles may be between the individual and God such as anger with God for “not showing up as expected” or acting in a way that seemed unloving. Spiritual struggles may also be between the person and others such as a young college woman experiencing conflicts with parents over religious values or conflicts within congregations.

Intrapersonal struggles may be experienced as a failure to live up to spiritual standards of right living or difficulty in forgiving oneself for moral failure. Struggles may also be experienced as a battle with supernatural evil.

Spiritual struggles may be different from other psychological difficulties because of the experience of the supernatural as well as the importance of religion and spirituality to the identity of many people.

Spiritual struggles can be assessed through interviews and survey items.

Some research suggests younger persons and women are more susceptible to struggles than are others.

Spiritual struggles can affect mood and behavior with symptoms of depression and anxiety evident. Religious scholar Marcus Borg referred to anxiety, fear, guilt, and anguish as the told of his spiritual struggle as an adolescent Christian.

The effects of a struggle may be closely linked to the struggle itself or the effects may worsen an existing health or mental health condition. Spiritual struggles have been linked to worsening a variety of general health conditions such as cardiovascular problems and cancer.

Few studies have looked at the possibility of personal growth following a spiritual struggle. This is an area in need of research. An example might be a more mature outlook or sense of peace and wellbeing once the struggle has been resolved.

When spiritual struggles result from a person's behavior that violates their spiritual/moral standards, self-forgiveness may be helpful in repairing the distress and "healing the soul."

I am drawing on a summary by Julie Exline (2013) for this post. Please see her chapter (below) or other works to learn more about spiritual struggles and the names of prominent scientists who study this field.

You can find a variety of scales and survey items related to spirituality at my Assessment and Statistics Blog. Some of the measures are free to use or may be free with permission of the author.

Some spiritual survey scales and items are included in the book CreatingSurveys  
available on AMAZON worldwide

How to measure Spiritual Struggles and Coping

Brief RCOPE Scale (religious coping)

Related posts

Cite this post 

Sutton, G. W. (2020, January 8). Spiritual struggles. Psychology concepts and theories.


Exline, J. J. (2013). Religious and spiritual struggles. In J. J. Exline (Ed.), APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research. (pp. 459–475). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


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