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Faith 101: Supporting college freshmen through times of spiritual questioning

Higher academic standards, sexual assault and homesickness are among the many challenges college freshmen face in what for many is their first prolonged period of independence.

Add one more item to the list: Spiritual struggles.

The more incoming students contended with issues such as doubting their faith or feeling punished by God, the greater risk they appeared to be for a variety of addictive behaviors, from gambling to recreational drugs, a new study indicated.

Students leaving home for school at a developmental stage when many aspects of their lives are being questioned may turn to less healthy coping strategies as they struggle on their own with uncertainty about their faith.

“Findings in this study suggest that spiritual struggles are a significant factor in the health and well-being of college students,” researchers reported in the latest issue of the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. “These results suggest that students may be utilizing unhealthy patterns (e.g., addiction) as one way to cope with their spiritual struggles and other life stressors.”

The finding is consistent with a developing body of research revealing the complex nature of religion and mental health. The assurance of a loving God concerned with their welfare helps many people deal with life’s stresses, but individuals with a less secure attachment to the divine may face greater problems with anxiety and depression.

The challenge for caregivers and religious individuals and communities is to help people through their periods of struggle with doubts that can be part of an active spiritual journey.

Attachment to God

Religion can be a powerful resource for the well-being of believers at all stages of life.

Several studies have found a generally positive relation between religious beliefs and practices and better mental health. Faith has been associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and greater life satisfaction.

For many people, belief in a divine being who is caring, loving and supportive provides a firm foundation to decrease general anxiety and an important coping mechanism when challenged with stresses such as a major illness or the loss of a job.

However, for some people whose relationship with God is itself marked by anxiety, and see the divine being as cold, distant and unresponsive, faith can have the opposite effect, research suggests.

In a study analyzing data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey, researchers found no significant relationship between how often one prayed and anxiety-related disorders. That changed, however, when they broke it down in terms of an individuals’ attachment to God.

Those with a secure relationship to God had fewer anxiety-related systems. And more frequent prayer was related to better mental health.

But individuals who had an anxious amount of attachment to God had higher rates of anxiety-related symptoms. And how much they prayed did not moderate the rate of symptoms of anxiety-related disorders.

“We find consistent interactions between the frequency of prayer and secure attachment to God, such that persons who pray often to a God who is perceived as a secure attachment figure derive clear mental health benefits, while those who pray to a God who is perceived as distant or unresponsive experience elevated levels of anxiety-related symptoms,” researchers Christopher Ellison, Matt Bradshaw, Kevin Flannelly and Kathleen Galek reported in the Summer 2014 issue of Sociology of Religion.

In the study of college freshmen, 90 students in a Midwestern university were surveyed at two separate points during their second semester.

Those scoring higher on a scale measuring spiritual struggles were more likely to be associated with higher levels of 11 out of 14 domains of addiction, including caffeine, exercise, food starving, gambling, prescription drugs, recreational drugs, sex, shopping, tobacco and work, reported researchers Carol Ann Faigin, Kenneth Pargament and Hisham Abu-Raiya.

The researchers noted the results were from one university and should be viewed as exploratory in nature. But they also said the study demonstrates “spiritual struggles as a possible risk factor in the development of a wide range of potentially destructive behaviors for first-year college students.”

More understanding, less judgment

Religious college freshmen, like most religious Americans, find their spiritual journeys come with peaks and valleys.

Three quarters of U.S. worshipers said they at least sometimes have doubts about the things they have learned in their faith, according to a random sample of 834 respondents to the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey.

Yet the fears of expressing doubt or sharing suffering remain for many religious individuals who worry such admissions may signal a lack of faith or divine judgment. It only becomes worse when their fears are realized, research indicates.

Congregants who judge others struggling in their spiritual journey can alienate churchgoers dealing with doubt, and contribute to problems from loss of social support to depression, research indicates.

Judging the doubting individual also can end up depriving the person “of precisely that sense of comfort” that can be offered by a supportive religious community, said Ellison of the University of Texas at San Antonio.

On the other side, offering support that provides affirmation for the individual who is struggling, along with a sense that she or he is not alone and that the time of questioning may be a natural, perhaps appropriate part of a spiritual search, may lead to more positive outcomes, Ellison said.

In the case of college freshmen struggling with their faith, some helpful approaches could include educating incoming students about the prevalence and progression of spiritual questioning and doubts, researchers said.

“Normalization and letting students know that they are not ‘alone’ in this process may buffer feelings of abandonment and isolation common to those struggling, which in turn may decrease their risk for addiction,” Faigin, Pargament and Abu-Raiya said.

The researchers said clinicians may also consider helping students seek healthy social support and positive self-care. “Bolstering positive religious coping strategies may decrease students’ propensity to engage in maladaptive coping such as addictive behaviors,” the researchers noted.

The bottom line appears to be that greater social support, as opposed to judgmental attitudes, can make a difference in the mental health of individuals in times of spiritual struggles.

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