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Spirituality and Forgiveness for Posttraumatic Growth

By Mike Kennedy

A variety of therapeutic approaches have been developed to promote positive coping among trauma survivors, including First Responders (Chopko, 2009). Most of these have focused on avoidance of the painful memories and emotions of the traumatic event; or reducing the prevalence of these thoughts to achieve a level of manageability. However, research by psychologists is showing that facing the trauma and its resultant thoughts, feelings, pain and emotion and placing it in the broader context is positively correlated to posttraumatic growth.

Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) is defined as positive changes within a person resulting from an event that disrupts one’s world view. It does not occur as a direct result of the trauma per se; rather a new reality experienced in the aftermath of the trauma determines the degree of growth (Chopko, 2009). In essence, the mental processing of the traumatic event develops a new conceptual framework that integrates the traumatic event into the person’s world view. Posttraumatic Growth then is seen as a deeper appreciation for life, an increase in meaningful relationships, and an increased sense of strength.

A 2009 study, conducted by Chopko and Schwartz, entitled The Relation Between Mindfulness and Posttraumatic Growth: A Study of First Responders to Trauma-Inducing Incidents, is insightful because it provides a real-world glimpse into the lives of police officers from multiple departments in a Midwestern state who had been exposed to at least one traumatic event. This sample, while only coming from one state, is large enough to merit statistical significance. This means that the results have validity (and can be relied on to analyze approaches) because there were a large number of participants. 183 Police Officers, 170 male officers and 13 female officers 1, participated and were all selected from the same state, but working in department sizes ranging in size from 30-1800 personnel. The officers ranged in age from 23-67. These officers identified themselves from a religious perspective; 86% as Christian, .5% as Jewish, 1.6% as Agnostic, 1.6% as atheist, and 9% as spiritual but not religious, and 1.6% as other.

From a methodological standpoint, Chopko and Schwartz administered standard demographic questionnaires soliciting the age, gender, race, years of education, years in law enforcement, current rank, job assignment, current relationship status, religious affiliation, and month and year of most recent traumatic event. Additional questions asked participants to rate the amount of recent effort spent on personal relationships and spiritual growth, on a scale of 0-10 with 0 being no effort, 5 a moderate level of effort, and 10 a large amount of effort.

Interestingly, Chopko and Schwartz found that the findings on participant’s perspective on the amount of effort they put into spiritual growth was highly related to an increase in Posttraumatic Growth. This is significant because it validates findings from other studies that show a significant association between religiosity and PTG in Israeli children who had experienced terror attacks (Laufer and Solomon, 2006). Linley and Joseph reviewed other scientific studies that found religious activity and intrinsic religiousness were also positively associated with PTG (2004). As it relates to PTG, spirituality can mean different things to different people, but Chopko and Schwartz suggest a few: greater sense of universal presence, increased commitment to one’s religion, a clearer understanding of religious beliefs, a sense of being connected to something greater than was possible before the traumatic event, or simply a spiritual quest to find answers to spiritual questions brought on by the traumatic event. Within the two studies cited, each suggest a therapeutic approach to addressing traumatic events to achieve PTG.

Reflect on the Traumatic Event and Its Consequences

This is part of the mental processing required to create the new conceptual framework that integrates the event into your world view. Chopko and Schwartz (and other studies) show that this has to happen in order for the PTG to occur. This is not simply accepting that it happened, as this simply may not be enough to bring about the cognitive processing to achieve growth. In most mindfulness therapy interventions, acceptance includes a mindset that is non-judgmental and a welcoming of whatever thoughts, feelings, and emotions associate with the event. The event has occurred and no amount of personal intervention can change that. Mindfulness therapies however, do not focus or base themselves in religious or spiritual matters. Chopko and Schwartz results indicate that focusing on the spiritual or religious could help lead to greater PTG.


As human beings, one of the toughest things to do is to forgive. In the case of traumatic events, forgiveness includes yourself, the situation, and the perpetrators of the traumatic event. In a 2012 study, The Relationship Between Forgiveness, Spirituality, Traumatic Guilt and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Among People with Addiction, Langman and Chung cite several sources that point out that spirituality and forgiveness are associated with psychological well-being; forgiveness is an important coping strategy to prevent relapse into substance abuse and improves mental health. Additionally, according to Langman and Chung, spirituality has been shown to enhance inner strength, help provide meaning to traumatic events, provide people with an optimistic perspective, and subsequently reduce anxiety. Forgiveness is still hard to give, though.

In summary, PTG is the positive changes within a person resulting from an event that disrupts their world view. PTG can be seen as one of the goals in any treatment involving responders who have experienced traumatic events. Spirituality has been shown to be highly related to increased PTG. By reflecting on the traumatic events non-judgmentally and welcoming associated thoughts and feelings, responders can achieve the amount of cognitive processing required to achieve PTG. Spirituality can help responders gain a greater sense of who they are in the universe, increase their commitment to their religion, provide a clearer understanding of their beliefs and give them a sense of being connected to something greater than was possible before the trauma. Forgiveness, despite how difficult it is to do, plays an important part in overall psychological well-being.


(1) In 2008, in departments larger than 500 officers, 21 percent were female. In medium sized departments, 9% were female and in small departments, 10% were female (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010). In the Chopko study, only 7% of the sample were female officers. Chopko, B. & Schwartz, R., (2009), The relation between mindfulness and posttraumatic growth: A study of first responders to trauma-inducing incidents, Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 31 (4).

Langman, L. & Chung, M.C. (2012), The relationship between forgiveness, spirituality, traumatic guilt and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among people with addiction, Springer Science + Business Media.

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