The Spirituality Paradox: How spirituality helps during trauma and how trauma nurtures spirituality

Meaning. Purpose. Connection. Breast Cancer.

The last in the above series – breast cancer – may not seem to fit with the first three words, but after a breast cancer diagnosis and/or treatment, survivors often find themselves wrestling with:

  • Finding meaning in life
  • Finding a purpose for what they are doing and why
  • Being connected with a higher power and/or to those around them

These three can all be interwoven throughout a breast cancer experience, and all are part of spirituality.

While there are many definitions of “spirituality,” the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing describes it as:

“…a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience—something that touches us all. People may describe a spiritual experience as sacred or transcendent or simply a deep sense of aliveness and interconnectedness.

Some may find that their spiritual life is intricately linked to their association with a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue. Others may pray or find comfort in a personal relationship with God or a higher power. Still others seek meaning through their connections to nature or art. Like your sense of purpose, your personal definition of spirituality may change throughout your life, adapting to your own experiences and relationships.”

Is there a connection between spirituality and breast cancer? Join us in a new blog series as we explore spirituality from the perspective of women diagnosed with breast cancer. We’ll delve into the connection between spirituality and your physical and mental health and well-being, activities that may enrich your spirituality, and how other women going through breast cancer have used, cultivated, and/or found healing through spiritual practice(s).

To start this series, I interviewed Andy Tix, Ph.D.. Dr. Tix’s research, teaching, and writing have focused on the psychology of religion and spirituality, and his work exploring connections between religion and health earned him awards from the John Templeton Foundation and the American Psychological Association. We started our discussion exploring the difference between spirituality and religiosity. The conversation was so rich, I have included the transcript of our conversation below:

Firefly: So many of us may confuse spirituality and religion, thinking that they are the same thing. What is the difference between the two? Are there similarities?

Dr. Tix: They are both similar in that they both deal with what is Sacred (defined as that which lasts forever or that which evokes awe or reverence ). Practicing religion means being part of a larger institution of beliefs and behaviors regarding the Sacred. Spirituality is an autonomous, intrinsically motivated personal quest experienced by an individual regarding the Sacred. Research by Ken Pargament shows that while people believe that religion and spirituality are polar opposites(i.e. religion is ritualistic, institutional, and always bad while spirituality is spontaneous, personal, and always good), it turns out that spiritual practices sometimes have rituals (for example, going through the same poses in Yoga) and sometimes are practiced in a group environment (gathering with others for a Yoga class at a local gym), while religion sometimes can be spontaneous (i.e. at a Quaker meeting messages are free-form from any congregant) and sometimes solitary (daily devotions and prayer). Interestingly, people who are spiritual often find a group of like-minded people to practice their spirituality with, while some religions use spiritual experiences to enhance their lives. Research has shown that as people, through time, have become less religiously affiliated, the incidence of loneliness has increased.

Firefly: That’s interesting. What other health benefits are associated with spirituality and religion or lack thereof?

Dr. Tix: Spirituality is more difficult to research because it is relatively abstract and people and experts don’t agree on a definition. We have great data about religion: people who practice their religion generally have better mental health, decreased stress, better physical health, and lower levels of anxiety. It really depends on the way you are religious.

Firefly: Tell me more about that.

Dr. Tix: Well, extrinsically religious people participate in religious activities for a secondary benefit, such as doing them to please a parent or spouse, or doing so to be happy. This type of religious person experiences decreased mental health On the other hand, intrinsically religious people participate because they believe in it and have a personal desire to be involved. This type of religious experience produces better mental health There could be many reasons, such as increased awe, gratitude, forgiveness, mindfulness, prayer, and compassion, all of which are tied to spirituality. These are the components of spirituality that experts in the field are currently trying to measure and figure out the impact on mental health.

Firefly: What is your own personal experience with spirituality?

Dr. Tix: That’s an interesting question. There’s a Sanskrit word, kama muta – “moved by love” – that encompasses what people describe as “being moved” and the physical reactions that accompany it: feeling chills or goosebumps, being unable to speak, experiencing tear-filled eyes, feeling that their soul is stirred. I know when I feel it physically, especially with awe, which I often feel in nature or when listening to profound music. As a professor, I have all of my students watch a couple of videos to experience awe found in nature (BBC Planet Earth Videos) or moved by song (Choir! Choir! Choir!) to see how these triggers influence them.

Firefly: Anything else you would like to add that I didn’t ask you about?

Dr. Tix: At the core of spirituality is self-transcendence, when you get beyond yourself and experience strong emotions (awe, gratitude, happiness, peace, etc.). When you are not focusing on you. I think that is something we can all do more of.

A fitting way to end the first part of this blog series. A tremendous thank you to Dr. Andy Tix, Ph.D. for helping shed light on the differences between spirituality and religiosity. Our next blog in the series will focus on the paradox of how spirituality can help people through breast cancer and how breast cancer can nurture spirituality, and we’ll explore what people do spiritually that helps or hurts in their coping.


Written by Amy Tix, breast cancer survivor and Firefly staffer, who enjoyed a completely relaxed and informal interview with her hubby for this blog!

4 thoughts on “The Spirituality Paradox: How spirituality helps during trauma and how trauma nurtures spirituality

  1. Doug Pearson on said:

    Dr.Tix is spot on! The intrinsic & extrinsic aspects of religion & spirituality dove tail together for me.
    Thank you.

  2. Lynnette Van Epps-Smith on said:

    Thank you so much for this series a two time survivor of breast cancer with added Fallopian tube cancer…I have been on a personal journey for the past three years of healing myself physically and spiritually….this for me has been sometimes a lonely journey as others often don’t realize it’s not over after the surgery..after the treatment…its now a matter of survival…

    • Firefly Sisterhood on said:

      Lynette, I couldn’t agree more! In part 2 of this series, Dr. Deanna A. Thompson talks about the trauma of breast cancer as “the suffering that remains” . . . it sounds like you are experiencing that right now (suffering that remains after treatment is over). The second part of this series will be published on Tuesday!

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