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To hell and back: How 69 days underground affects spirituality

/ Source: LiveScience

After 69 days trapped in the dark more than 2,000 feet underground, 33 Chilean miners are emerging one-by-one from the earth today in an unprecedented rescue. Amid the joy at the mine, one of the miners, Mario Sepulveda, struck a serious tone.

"I have been with God, and I've been with the devil," Sepulveda told reporters, adding, "I always knew God would get us out of there."

Sepulveda is not alone in his faith. Chilean citizens and officials have repeatedly cited God as the force keeping the miners alive. Looking to a higher power isn't unusual after a traumatic experience, researchers say, and that may be a good thing. Echoing what many religious leaders have touted, studies show that spirituality and religion really can turn trauma into an opportunity for growth.

"All of use have kind of these basic deep, deep beliefs about life and what life owes us," Elizabeth Altmaier, a psychologist at the University of Iowa who studies spirituality, health and religion, told LiveScience. "So a trauma really brings those to the surface and makes you look at them."

Questioning trauma

There is no predictable pattern of how a person's spirituality will change after a traumatic experience, said David Foy, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., who has studied trauma and recovery in military veterans. Some people's religious beliefs remain unchanged, some people lose faith, and others believe more strongly.

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What is known is that traumatic experiences often trigger a re-evaluation of beliefs, including spiritual ones, said Kent Drescher, a psychologist with the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Menlo Park, Calif. Sometimes, people work through the questions triggered by trauma, like "Why me?" and "What did the experience mean?" by finding greater spiritual meaning in life, he said.

It's a phenomenon called "post-traumatic growth," in which people who go through something terrible report that it made them better. Not everyone experiences post-traumatic growth (some experience the negative side of trauma, post-traumatic stress). But according to a 2005 review of research published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, religion, along with other traits like optimism and acceptance, was associated with more growth after a traumatic period.

Religion plays several different roles in people's lives, all of which can help after a disaster, Altmaier said. Spiritual beliefs provide meaning, give people a sense of control and comfort, offer a connection with other people and create a pathway for transformation, she said.

Depending on the weight people give to each role, they may use religion in different ways. One person might look for meaning in the disaster, while another might reach out more to the church community or family. Still another might view the trauma as an opportunity to become a better person, Altmaier said.

Anger at God

But religious beliefs don't guarantee a perfect outcome. Sometimes, people "get stuck" on the questions triggered by the trauma and become angry at God, or feel that God is punishing them. That's a bad sign for mental health, Drescher said.

"Having strong feelings of anger directed toward God is usually associated with worse outcomes," he said. "Not necessarily that it causes them, but they're correlated."

Assuming all of the miners and rescuers survive, they may not face the problems like survivor's guilt that are common in military vets and can cause that kind of anger, Drescher said. But the experience of being trapped may still be powerful enough to raise tough questions about the nature of God.

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'God has never left us down here'

So far, the miners seem to be drawing on their religion as a source of comfort. When 44-year-old Esteban Rojas stepped out of the rescue capsule Oct. 13, he dropped to his knees in prayer. The youngest miner, 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez, wrote in a message on Tuesday (Oct. 12) that there were really 34, not 33, people in the mine, "because God has never left us down here."

Likewise, Chileans as a whole are embracing the mine rescue as a miracle from God. Before the rescue began, Chilean president Sebastian Pinera said, "When the first miner emerges safe and sound, I hope all the bells of all the churches of Chile ring out forcefully, with joy and hope. Faith has moved mountains."

More than 70 percent of Chile's residents share the Catholic faith, with another 15 percent identifying as Protestant, according to a 2002 census. That shared culture could boost the country as a whole, said Lisa Miller, a psychologist at Columbia University in New York, who studies spirituality and wellness.

"There's this real and very powerful lift in countries where you see there's a shared spirituality," Miller told LiveScience. "I think it's remarkable that the entire country saw it at a Chilean event."