Spiritual Meaning Can Be a Buffer, Disaster Research Finds

Interview with Jamie Aten by Madeleine Davies

This article was originally published in Church Times on August 26, 2016.

Battered: A Red Cross truck and other vehicles sit flooded in front of a hotel in Pascagoula, Mississippi, as Hurricane Katrina deluges the region, in August, 2005. Credit: AP

Battered: A Red Cross truck and other vehicles sit flooded in front of a hotel in Pascagoula, Mississippi, as Hurricane Katrina deluges the region, in August, 2005. Credit: AP

Being able to derive meaning from loss after a natural disaster can protect people from post-traumatic stress, a study from the US suggests.

A research team including Dr Jamie D. Aten, co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, studied 485 undergraduates at the University of South Mississippi, all of whom who have survived Hurricane Katrina, 12-16 weeks after the disaster. The team measured how much each participant had lost in the disaster, the extent to which they suffered from post-traumatic stress, and whether they had derived spiritual meaning from the event.

In a working paper published this month, the researchers report that greater loss was associated with greater post-traumatic stress and that spiritual meaning was associated with less post-traumatic stress, concluding that this was “consistent with the idea that spiritual meaning buffered individuals against the deleterious effects of resource loss on psychological symptoms”.

“Helping participants restore a sense of meaning may be a critical feature in reducing psychological distress among disaster survivors,” they write. “Individuals who are prompted to reconsider the disaster through the lens of spiritual meaning may demonstrate improved psychological health and well-being relative to those who are unable to find meaning.”

The study acknowledges limitations, including the narrow sample (mainly white women) and need to explore “negative religious coping” such as negative views of God.

This week, Dr Aten explained that two people who had a very similar experience of the hurricane and were “equally as faithful in their beliefs” could have very different outcomes. A person who believed that God was punishing him or her would struggle more than one who believed that he or she had been spared by God: “It is not about how religious one is, but how one engages with their faith that is a better predictor of long-term outcomes.”

Pastors played a significant part in the recovery process, he said. After the hurricane, he had visited one church where the pastor had said that those angry at God lacked faith. At another, the pastor had said that God was “big enough to hold your anger”. Dr Aten’s work includes training pastors in disaster ministry, encouraging them to develop a “theology of disaster” and to preach hope, comfort, community, and service.

Church congregations also play a significant part in social support, he said.

“Local congregations tend to be one of the very first on the ground and, as others leave, it tends to be faith communities that are one of large drivers of the long-term recovery process. They know who the vulnerable are and are more well-positioned to provide long-term aid than most other organisations or groups.”

His future research will involve studying the long-term impact of disasters on faith, including those who struggle to hang on to it. He pointed to a study conducted after the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand (News, 17 September 2010), which found that survivors of disasters who were no longer affiliated with religion reported poorer mental-health outcomes over time.

“Initial struggle does not mean that someone is going to walk away,” he suggests. “Sometimes those who struggle more initially may deepen their faith if they are able to maintain it when they get to other side of struggle.”

The paper is available to download at 

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305992070_Spiritual_Meaning_Attenuates_the_Effect_of_Disaster_Exposure_on_Posttraumatic_Stress