In September 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by two devastating hurricanes Irma and Maria. Puerto Rico is also a predominantly Christian territory and positive religious coping strategies have been shown to be beneficial for mental health. New research published in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality found evidence that Christian affiliation can affect PTSD symptoms through an increased propensity toward forgiveness..
“Puerto Rico is a unique place not just geographically, but politically, ideologically, and of course in terms of its faith,” said study author Loren Toussaint, a professor at Luther College, president of the Forgiveness Foundation, and chair of the Templeton World Charity Foundation Discover Forgiveness Advisory Council.
“Because it is so overwhelmingly Christian, it seemed that this might influence how folks coped with the horrendous hurricanes they had to endure. Religious faith, including Christian faith, has been shown to influence stress, coping, and health in a variety of life circumstances and often it is found to have its action through key mechanisms such as social support, positive thinking, or things like gratitude, forgiveness, and meaning-making. We were interested in how Christian faith promotes search for meaning and forgiveness and how these things might relate to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
For the present study, the researchers recruited 511 Puerto Rican residents to participate in psychosocial skills-building workshops through Meaningful World, a nonprofit in Puerto Rico. They completed measures of religious affiliation, search for meaning, forgiveness, and PTSD symptoms directly resulting from the hurricanes.
Results show that Christian affiliation was associated with forgiveness, but not with search for meaning. Search for meaning was associated with more PTSD symptoms, whereas forgiveness was associated with less PTSD symptoms. Further analyses show that the effect of Christian religious affiliation on PTSD symptoms was stronger through forgiveness than through searching for meaning. In other words, people’s propensity toward forgiveness likely explains how Christian affiliation can reduce PTSD symptoms.
“Having a religious faith can be helpful in times of distress,” Toussaint told PsyPost. “Especially in very turbulent and unsettled times like we are living in now we can take several lessons from the work we did with Puerto Ricans. I’ll name just a couple. First, faith can help with coping in the midst of traumatic events. This is probably because it promotes things like gratitude, hope, meaning, and forgiveness.”
“Second, in our study we found that it was forgiveness that was the key link between Christian faith and fewer symptoms of trauma. That’s probably because Christianity promotes forgiveness and forgiveness is good for your mental health. But, you don’t have to Christian or even religious in any form to benefit from forgiveness. Many who meditate or who practice other forms of spirituality will often embrace forgiveness and can also reap its healing benefits.”
The authors mention some limitations to this work, including the correlational nature of the data. Specifically, we cannot know whether religious affiliations cause the observed changes in PTSD symptoms or if the relationship goes the other way around. “Reverse causality is always a possibility that can’t be ruled out,” Toussaint explained. “That said, it doesn’t invalidate our conclusions either, it just means we can’t say definitively if forgiveness causes fewer symptoms of PTSD or vice versa or if there is bidirectional causality occurring.”
“I think we have an enormous amount to learn about faith, forgiveness, coping, and life stress,” Toussaint added. “We are facing more common societal and global stressors, think climate change, war, pandemic, gun violence, etc. Sometimes we can pinpoint blame on one person and other times it’s more of just a horrible situation.”
“Going through these things is hard. Really hard, but when we come through on the other side, how do we cope, let go, and learn to thrive again. Looking deeper to one’s faith and spirituality for these existential answers is a natural thing to do and reaping the benefits of doing this often means we grow in understanding, making sense of life, gratitude, and forgiveness of ourselves, others, and even just plain old bad situations.”
“I hope as a result of our research people will consider looking to these things to help them adjust and move on productively in life,” Toussaint said. “But, it is certainly something we need to get better at helping people with. And this means more emphasis on these topics and more research and support for this type of work.”
The study, “Christian religious affiliation is associated with less posttraumatic stress symptoms“, was authored by Loren Toussaint and Erinn C. Cameron.