Have you ever wondered if your faith or spirituality has an impact on health and recovery? I have. Sporadically, news segments feature someone who has experienced a profound medical miracle—such as the vanishing brain and kidney disease that reportedly paved the way to Mother Teresa’s sainthood. Yet, these profound miracles don’t happen to everyone. What about everyday spirituality? How, if at all, does it help people heal in normal, less profound ways?
In a 2003 Journal of the American Psychologist article titled “Religion and Spirituality: Linkages to Physical Health,” the authors present evidence linking religion or spirituality as it relates to mortality, disability, or recovery from illness. The abstract reports, “In healthy participants, there is a strong, consistent, prospective, and often graded reduction in risk of mortality in church/service attenders. This reduction is approximately 25 percent.” Researchers also found that the healthy lifestyle that religion or spirituality encourages can help protect against illness.
If, like me, you’ve wondered about your own well-being, consider these five benefits that spirituality can contribute to a person’s overall health and wellness.
01. Connectivity: a Feeling of ‘I’m Not Alone’
Faith and spirituality connect you to a higher power. You may call that higher power Jesus, Allah, Creator, Supreme Being, Energy, Buddha, or whatever you prefer. For many, though, the name isn’t as significant psychologically as is having that sense of a higher power. This is no surprise, as research shows that loneliness plays an important part in the genesis of mental illness. The sense of a higher power—of something, someone, or a force outside yourself to call upon in need—gives one a sense of belonging and togetherness. For me, this is powerful because I know that at the end of the day, when I’ve done all I can, a higher power can help me, heal me, and improve me. I don’t have to go it alone.
Spirituality or a faith life often involves a church community or a group of believers who share common values. This community could be online or in a mosque, synagogue, church, or temple. Our American individualism, fast-paced life, mobility, and culture have changed drastically over the past few decades. In the process, some naturally forged communities have been lost from everyday life. But community is an important part of health, and faith can provide that.
Dr. Jeff Levin, Ph.D., M.P.H., a social epidemiologist who has been collecting data for thirty years to see if there is a link between spirituality and health, says that 80 to 90 percent of these studies show a positive correlation between the two. Dr. Levin, who examined more than two hundred studies on faith and health, discusses the similarities in his book God, Faith, and Health. He found that regular churchgoers or those who have a common spiritual community tend to have a social support structure, which is known to boost a person’s health. A faith community allows people to feel connected, not just to their higher power but also to each other. Even those who may feel disconnected from their immediate families can find a supernatural family in their faith or spirituality.
03. Meditation as Healing
Dr. Levin also notes in his research, “Meditation, prayer, and public worship services generate positive emotions, which can benefit one’s overall good health.” Spirituality provides an outlet in which to reflect and relieve stress and pain. This can be an appointment with a higher power from whom you seek to gain wisdom or guidance. Or it can be a simple disconnecting from the hectic day turned into a time of union with God, nature, and good energy.
Many scientists have found that prayer and meditation provide physical relief or hope in healing. One three-year follow-up in General Hospital Psychiatry on the effects of meditation saw significant stress reduction in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Another study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine reported that “mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention” helped decrease symptoms in patients with psoriasis. Meditation and prayer not only provide an outlet but can also actually reduce stress, speed up recovery, and even lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system.
Harold G. Koenig, M.D., who has conducted research as director of the Center for Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University, has found that those who benefit most from religion and spirituality are those who both attend religious services and practice personal prayer or spiritual reading at home and those who do so on a regular basis. Dr. Koenig, who leads seminars for Harvard Medical School Continuing Education program and has authored seven books on the subject, found that people who regularly attend church services, pray individually, and read the Bible are less likely to suffer from certain types of hypertension, have stronger immune systems, tend to be hospitalized less often, and leave the hospital sooner than those who rarely or never attend church. He also found that the deeper the person’s religious faith, the less likely they are to be crippled by depression during or after hospitalization due to a physical illness. Talk about a miracle medical drug!
04. A Coping Strategy
Spirituality can give deep meaning to life, suffering, and death that we may seek over the course of our lives. Research in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine notes, “A large body of research suggests that individuals rely on their spirituality and religious faith when coping with illness and that these forms of coping are generally associated with positive health outcomes. That includes less depression and longer survival, fewer post-surgical complications, and delayed onset and slower progression of physical disability.”
One’s beliefs may provide meaning or an explanation for difficulty and pain, helping a person to better cope. Some faith traditions come with a narrative story or a moral “to-do” list of sorts. In this way, spirituality provides answers to many of life’s burning questions, namely Why am I here? and What should I do with my life? Spirituality, by providing answers, provides a sense of purpose and direction. Those who have found purpose in life then find life more intentional and meaningful. Thus, spiritual wellness supports healthy mental and physical well-being. This brings the ancient Latin phrase mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) to life.
Hope is a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. Given the other benefits of spirituality, I think the best of them all is hope. Whether it be hope for personal fulfillment now or hope for eternal happiness in the next life, many spiritualities evoke hope as a key virtue.
Dr. Jay Fawver, a psychiatrist and host of the popular PBS television show Matters of the Mind with Dr. Jay Fawver, sees firsthand the impact of faith on his clients but cautions them not to rely solely on spirituality to cure illness. “Research shows that one’s level of religiosity or involvement in their spirituality is directly related to one’s overall health and recovery,” Dr. Fawver says. “One’s faith life can certainly help in lessening stress and depression and help one recover from it.”
As we approach the New Year, perhaps instead of improving our health by resolving to lose ten pounds, we could crack out some spiritual reading or spend a few minutes each day in prayer or meditation. In doing so, we may find ourselves better able to encounter others and approach a higher power in a new way, knowing all the while that it will be as good for our bodies as it is for our spirits.
Photo Credit: Christie Graham Photography