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Can religious coping help Australian bushfire affected communities get back on their feet? Here’s what psychology suggests.

Originally published in Psychology Today!

Recent studies in the psychology of religion and positive psychology circles point to the various benefits of religious coping. Dealing with the shock of a natural disaster through religiously framed cognitive, emotional, or behavioral responses can change one’s perspective and create a sense of hope amidst life’s crisis. This coping style is pertinent to bushfire affected communities in Australia, with research evidence from disaster psychologists showing that comfort found in religious resources, beliefs, or practices generally leads to positive outcomes among disaster survivors. 

But what exactly is religious coping and how does it apply to survivors of the Australian bushfire disaster? 

Psychologist Kenneth Pargament describes religious coping as how people reframe their previously held assumptions about the world around them and adapt to challenges using religious resources. Religious coping is experienced in the context of a perceived relationship and identification with the sacred. This process involves making use of available religious resources to deal with stressful life situations and turning to spiritual explanations to make sense of events that are beyond one’s control. 

Religious coping involves cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to stressful life events. 

Cognitive Responses and Religious Coping 

Cognitive efforts aimed at seeking spiritual support and meaning are facilitated through domains of cognition, especially memory and reasoning. Spiritual explanations of a bushfire disaster can provide a sense of relief, hope, and minimize self-blame. For example, the “burning bush” experienced by Moses in the Bible (cf. Exodus 3:1-17) can exert a promise of hope and foster resilience for communities affected by a bushfire incident. Such narratives, if applied skillfully, can reframe the way religious communities affected by bushfire incidents see the disaster as a springboard to a higher calling. 

Processing thoughts of bushfire-induced trauma using religious narratives and positive concepts of the sacred as “merciful” or “omnipresent” in the midst of a tragic event can be effective in reducing symptoms of stress developed after experiencing a traumatic event. However, interventions that focus on abstract religious doctrines or theologies may further aggravate people’s perception of God as uncaring and distant, especially when it is done without the guidance of a trained healthcare professional or religious leader

Religious Coping and Emotions  

Emotional responses to stressful life events are manifested through personal and spiritual experiences with the sacred. For example, victims of a bushfire disaster may express their fearful anxious emotions through drawing closer to God or expressing their anger by avoiding God or turning away from religion. In contrast to these fearful, avoidant, and anxious responses to a tragic event, religious coping may also involve treating God as a partner and seeking a perceived caregiving relationship with God through establishing an imaginary bond of divine security. 

Perceiving God as a “loving and all-knowing father” amid a bushfire disaster can nurture feelings of protection against adversity and trigger the need to draw closer to something greater. The emotions associated with religious coping is the principal currency of a believer-God relationship and the motivational force to behavioral responses during stressful life events. 

Religious Behaviors and Coping   

Religiously framed behavioral responses to stress are actions that help in constructing a coherent narrative of a tragic experience. This may include praying after a bushfire incident; reading or reciting religious books (e.g., the book of Psalms); speaking positive religious words over one’s self after a disaster; attending a religious gathering and becoming a part of a faith community. These actions provide the context to make sense of trauma and construct meaning in the face of a disaster. 

Practices that effectively fuse religion and coping are most likely to address the spiritual needs of Australian bushfire affected communities as they make sense of the disaster and ask the big questions of faith. Such spiritual needs and questions can include answers about their sense of meaning, purpose, and well-being in the aftermath of the bushfire disaster.  

Beyond the Response and Interpretation 

Religious coping can be a healthy way of constructing meaning for bushfire affected communities. Although facilitated through cognitive, emotional, or behavioral responses, the central tenet of trauma-focused intervention is expressing internalized emotions and fears in order to construct a coherent narrative of a personal tragedy. Beyond the spiritual needs, religious coping responses can help bushfire affected communities make sense of their loss. 

Having a spiritual worldview can offer a fresh perspective for interpreting life events. It can create an opportunity to construct a narrative of hope from a tragic event. It can offer an opportunity to build resilience in the face of a disaster. Religious coping can help bushfire affected communities take actions of contemplation seriously as they express their emotions to make sense of their tragedy. 

Trained healthcare professionals and faith communities can play a formative role in this restorative process as they guide people in the journey of finding hope and answers in a hopeless situation. They can work with affected communities to restore their sense of spiritual meaning and address issues of displacement since they know the people in these communities better than anyone else. 

The challenge for those who turn to religion for hope and resilience is that of interpretation and response. A religious coping response that interprets the friction between life’s expectation and present reality, in light of divine love and presence, is one that has the transformative power to down-regulate the effects of trauma.

Since the search for spiritual significance is the corollary of a disaster, coping responses of religious nature can be constructive for dealing with a bushfire disaster. Bushfire affected communities can benefit from the meaning and answers that religion can provide.