CWRU psychologist leads $1.4 million project to study spiritual struggles, stress links

Julie Exline CWRU headshot

Julie Exline

Researchers hope to discover why some people struggle with their spirituality or religious beliefs and practices in the face of life’s challenges while others don’t.

The answers, they say, may offer clues that help prevent stress-related health problems, because such strong internal conflicts can cause long-term physical and emotional consequences.

Psychologists from Case Western Reserve and Bowling Green State universities were awarded a three-year, $1.4 million grant from The John Templeton Foundation to study the factors behind religious and spiritual struggles.

Case Western Reserve psychology professor Julie Exline, who has long studied spiritual struggles, such as anger with God, will lead the investigation in collaboration with Bowling Green psychology professor Kenneth Pargament, who has also done extensive research and writing on spiritual and religious issues.  Other investigators from the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston and Biola University in Southern California will be a part of the project.

Spiritual struggles can surface in many ways. Some become angry with God or feel punished by God. Others may doubt their religious beliefs, feel intense guilt about moral failings or worry about whether their life has any ultimate purpose. Many disagree with others about religious issues and may feel offended by the actions of some religious people.

The researchers hope to learn what factors may predict who will struggle with their spirituality and why. They also want to understand whether spiritual struggles may have positive effects, such as personal growth or increased compassion for others.

Pargament noted that, because so little is known in this area, health care professionals often find themselves at a loss when met with people facing spiritual struggles.

“Spiritual struggles can be a source of such deep pain,” he said. “We hope that the knowledge gained from this research will facilitate our efforts to help people encountering spiritual stress and strain.”

“We also hope,” Exline said, “that this research will provide a foundation for a new focus on religious and spiritual struggles in psychology and related fields.”

The long-term project will involve separate studies of three populations: college students, U.S. adults (age 18 and older) and military veterans who have recently returned from deployment.

Researchers will revisit each study’s participants several times to look at how their spiritual struggles unfold over time. Understanding how spiritual struggles arise and how they are resolved is a major objective. They hope to better understand what personality types, life events and social factors may predict who struggles with their beliefs and how people cope with struggles once they arise.

According to Exline, each group presents it own special perspectives.

For example, students living on or near a college campus might begin to question or doubt their long-held beliefs once exposed to new, diverse ideas. About 500 students at three colleges are being recruited for the study.

In the second study, researchers plan to use an online survey to find a large group of U.S. adults who report dealing with major religious and spiritual struggles. Respondents will be revisited four times over six months to track how they coped.

Finally, 150 to 200 recently returned veterans receiving medical care at a veteran’s hospital will provide a third perspective on struggling with faith after facing military service-related stress. The researchers will focus on mental health issues, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts. The veterans will be visited initially, and again six months later to measure any changes in their spiritual struggles.

The grant will also support a book about spiritual struggles and a review article on the same topic, both authored by Pargament and Exline. Funding also covers several smaller, short-term research projects, with intentions to publish research articles.

One proposed investigation seeks to understand the religious-based struggles some atheists and agnostics face—an idea that surfaced in Exline’s previous research.

“We know that trauma and transition can affect people psychologically, socially and physically,” Pargament added. But life’s events can impact people spiritually as well.

Death, abandonment, natural disasters, accidents and other forms of trauma trigger many struggles with religion and spirituality. But even smaller frustrations, such as an unanswered prayer, a personal disappointment or exposure to new perspectives can stir doubts, Exline said.

Large or small distresses cause reactions that can fall into three areas:

  • Supernatural (anger toward God; feeling abandoned or punished by God; feeling attacked by the devil or evil spirits).
  • Interpersonal (offenses by religious organizations or people; disagreement or conflict about beliefs).
  • Intrapersonal (guilt about moral offenses; doubts or confusion about beliefs; questioning whether life has any ultimate meaning).

The overall picture of how these struggles unfold is likely to depend on a complex interplay of personal factors and life events, Exline said.

“People have many ways to respond to spiritual struggles, and we need to know where those responses will lead,” Exline said. “Some struggles will be resolved quickly, but others take longer and sometimes become chronic. We want to identify the most effective strategies for dealing with these challenges in spiritual life.”

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