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On the Road to Healing: Meaning-Making and Beliefs During COVID-19

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Editor’s Note: This blog post is the second of a three-part series.


In my last blog post, I wrote about how during this time of collective loss, we can approach our experience with compassion and grace (see post here).  In this post, I will write about how “meaning-making and beliefs” can be used as tools to soften our suffering around loss, make sense of our current world, and point us in a direction toward healing. I will also discuss how spirituality is a resource we can draw upon in order to make meaning.

Beliefs

Our beliefs are made up of a collection of core assumptions or premises about what is “true” in our worldview1-2. Beliefs are our lens. They are woven in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Beliefs are socially constructed, developed and nurtured by community, and solidified by language used within your family or social system. Each person’s beliefs are unique, and help inform how we make meaning in life and how we make sense of events and circumstances in our life. Beliefs are not always static. As we develop, our beliefs may change, they may become more rigid, or they may become more pliable. Many of our beliefs are rooted in spirituality and/or religion. Often our beliefs are not brought to our consciousness until something challenges them.

Softening suffering, constraining beliefs, and facilitating beliefs are phrases I have borrowed from scholars in the field of family nursing who have dedicated their work to understanding illness narratives, illness beliefs, and spirituality’s role in suffering1-2. Personally, I have sat with hundreds of individuals and families who are experiencing loss, and have helped them to reconstruct a sense of meaning in their world in order to move them toward a path of healing. Clinically, I have found these terms to be extraordinarily powerful when our beliefs are challenged, or as Park speaks to it, “our global meaning is in discord with our situational meaning.3” This is where the magic of meaning making takes place. Some of our beliefs may be more useful than others, and it is often the discord between the beliefs we hold and the actual world around us that tend to become problematic. Taking some time to explore your beliefs can reveal that there are constraining beliefs (e.g., those that can perpetuate issues and restrict potential solutions) and facilitating beliefs (e.g., those that create an option for a solution).

Take a moment to explore your beliefs around COVID-19. For example: “I believe that I have control of my environment and if I self-isolate, I will not contract the virus,” or “I believe that it’s only a matter of time before I get it.” Both of these are valid beliefs and are informed by your organized belief systems, values, experiences, perceptions, interpretations, and so much more. These beliefs will inform how you make sense of your current situation (i.e. meaning-making) and will influence your emotions and behaviors.

For further exploration see the reflective questions below, taken from Lorraine Wright, Wendy Watson, and Janice Bell1:

  • How are the belief and the problem or solution connected?
  • How does the belief perpetuate the problem or the solution?
  • How does the problem or the solution perpetuate the belief?
  • What does the belief invite the family (parents/kids/extended system) to do?
  • What beliefs do all family members hold?
  • How do family members believe differently? Similarly?
  • Do any beliefs invite discord? Healing?

Meaning-Making

The scholarly literature around meaning-making is quite vast. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to talk about how spirituality can be a pathway from which we make meaning. The hope is that spirituality can provide a framework that facilitates health-focused coping, and can serve as a personal and family resource. Simply stated, meaning making is the process by which we take the information our world presents us, interpret it, and ascribe a cognition3. To understand how we make meaning requires us to partake in the aforementioned step of exploring our beliefs. Meaning making is a powerful process toward recovery, resilience, and thriving. The meanings we make of our situation one month into the COVID pandemic are going to be different than the ones we had immediately, and will likely change as time progresses. It is important that we find a sense of coherence amidst the discord. It is through this dynamic appraisal process that coping through meaning making can occur.

Spirituality and Meaning-Making

Spirituality is viewed as a search within the self to understand and challenge one’s own beliefs in order to find a place of surrender and devotion to what was found during this inner search. It can ultimately be operationalized as the search for purpose, inner wisdom, and meaning in one’s life4-5. The transcendent in spirituality is not one ideological figure as it is in religion. It is believed to exist outside of the self, and yet also within the self. How people view and utilize their spirituality plays a critical role in how they organize their belief systems and how they create meaning. Spirituality, as well as religion, can help in stressful times by offering a framework to appraise the situation. For example, it can offer ways to reinterpret a situation in a positive way, providing guidance to see the larger picture of an event. In closing, during times of discord or crisis, spirituality can serve as a means by which we explore our beliefs and the meanings we attribute to our understanding of our world. In my next post, I will provide ways in which spirituality can be harnessed as a resource for self and family in hopes of facilitating healing during uncertain times.


References

1. Wright, L., Watson, W., & Bell, J. (1996). Beliefs: The heart of healing in families and illness. Basic Books.

2. Wright, L. (2017). Suffering and spirituality: The path to illness healing. 4th Floor Press.

3. Park, C. L. (2013). The meaning making model: A framework for understanding meaning, spirituality, and stress-related growth in health psychology. European Health Psychologist, 15(2), 40-47.

4. Damianakis, T. (2001). Postmodernism, spirituality, and the creative writing process: Implications for social work practice. Families in Society, 82, 23-34. doi: https://doi.org/10.1606/1044-3894.218 5. Koenig, H., King, D., & Carson, V. (2012). Handbook of religion and health (2nd ed). Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Stephanie Trudeau

Stephanie Trudeau

Dr. Stephanie Trudeau is a Postdoctoral Research Associate with the Thrive Center for Human Development where she currently studies the intersection of spirituality and thriving. Trained as a Medical Family Therapist and Integrated Behavioral Health Researcher, her academic expertise utilizes a biopsychosocial-spiritual lens in order to examine illness and recovery across family and social systems. She has dedicated her clinical and scholarly career toward developing a deeper understanding how families cope in the face of adversity, trauma, and grief.

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