The therapist-patient relationship is unique: only one person opens his heart to the other — a virtual stranger — to reveal his most intimate thoughts and fears (some not even told to the closest of friends). But as time goes on, this therapeutic relationship tends to evolve and strengthen. The therapist is no longer a stranger, and a bond tends to form.
But what exactly makes a healthy therapist -patient relationship? And what kind of relationship leads to greater treatment success?
According to a new study, the answer may be found during therapy’s “sacred” moments—those deep spiritual and personal connections that occur between therapist and patient. These could be moments of deep respect and understanding, awe, serenity, or gratitude. These moments have been found to aid in the patient’s healing and in creating a feeling of well-being in both the client and the therapist.
The study, conducted by researchers at Bowling Green State University (BGSU), is the first to investigate sacred moments between mental health therapists and their clients and how these connections affect treatment outcomes.
According to the researchers, a sacred moment is defined as a brief period in which the therapist and patient experience certain spiritual qualities, such as interconnectedness (the feeling of deep mutual understanding and caring); spiritual emotions (uplift, awe, humility, mystery, gratitude, joy, peace, and serenity); and transcendence (a moment perceived as different from typical day-to-day happenings which reaches beyond the limited self), among others.
First, the researchers asked the therapists to focus on an important moment they experienced during therapy and to relay whether or not they considered that moment to be sacred. Over half of the therapists reported that the moment they were thinking of was indeed sacred.
“Far from being unusual, then, sacred moments appear to be fairly normative in treatment,” said lead researcher Dr. Ken Pargament, professor of psychology at BGSU.
Pargament noted that sacred moments are more likely to occur where there is a strong therapeutic bond between therapist and client. The moments typically carry a feeling of therapeutic acceptance, presence and receptiveness.
Providers who reported having sacred moments with their clients also noted an increase in trust, honesty and openness, and cooperation and mutual respect in the relationship. Sacred moments were also connected to experiencing stronger growth and insight, work motivation and satisfaction, and spiritual well being.
“Clients may find that they have been fundamentally transformed by the sacred moments they have experienced in treatment. Providers may find that sacred moments are what make their work most meaningful and worthwhile, and what sustain them through the challenges of a mental health career,” said Pargament.
The study, titled “Sacred Moments in Psychotherapy from the Perspectives of Mental Health Providers and Clients: Prevalence, Predictors and Consequences,” is published in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice.