Discuss the evidence that spiritual health has physical benefits, has psychological benefits, and lowers stress.
A broad range of large-scale surveys has documented the importance of the mind-body connection to human health and wellness.
The emerging science of mind-body medicine is a research focus of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and an important objective of the organization’s 2011–2015 Strategic Plan. One area under study is the association between spiritual health and general health. The NCCIH cites evidence that spirituality can have a positive influence on physical health and suggests that the connection may be due to improved immune function, cardiovascular function, or a combination of physiological changes.9 Increasing numbers of studies are examining the effect that certain spiritual practices, such as yoga, deep meditation, and prayer, have on the mind, body, social and emotional health, and behavior and how these practices may improve health and promote healthy behaviors.1
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) contends that when we get sick, spiritual or religious well-being may help restore health and improve quality of life by:
- Decreasing anxiety, depression, anger, discomfort, and feelings of isolation
- Decreasing alcohol and drug abuse
- Decreasing blood pressure and the risk of heart disease
- Increasing the person’s ability to cope with the effects of illness and with medical treatments
- Increasing feelings of hope and optimism, freedom from regret, satisfaction with life, and inner peace
Several studies show an association between spirituality and/or religion and a person’s ability to cope with a variety of physical illnesses, including cancer.12 For example, one study of people living with chronic pain and neurological conditions showed a benefit to using spiritual health and mind-body techniques,13 as did another study of cardiac patients.14 However, newer research has questioned the efficacy of many of these studies, citing small sample size and methodological issues.15 Researchers have also looked into the overall association between religious and spiritual practices and mortality, and a review of over a decade of research studies indicated that individuals who incorporate weekly attendance at church or other organized religious settings may have a decreased risk of mortality, particularly from cardiovascular events.16 Another recent review of the literature found being religious to be was strongly associated with positive habits for your health, including being less likely to smoke, less likely to drink to excess, and being more likely to get regular medical screenings. However, religiosity is only weakly related to biomarkers like blood pressure, immune factors, cardiac reactivity, and disease progression. Measures of spirituality, on the other hand, were related more strongly to those biomarkers.17 More research is still necessary to determine the health benefits of spirituality and religion.
Current research also suggests that spiritual health contributes to psychological health. For instance, NCI and independent studies have found that spirituality reduces levels of anxiety and depression.18 In the case of academic performance, spirituality may provide a protective factor against burnout. In a study of 259 medical students, each completed a survey asking questions intended to measure levels of burnout, spirituality, psychological distress, ability to cope, and general happiness. Results showed students with higher scores of spiritual exercise and well-being to be more satisfied with their lives than students scoring lower.19 When people undergo psychological trauma, the meaning of life can be severely challenged. Counselors work with trauma survivors to help them find meaning in their trauma, to change their ways of thinking, and to move them toward involvement in meaningful life experiences. Psychologists at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have done extensive clinical work with veterans who are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their combat service. An example of the value of spiritual or religious practice may be that, following trauma, powerful emotions like anger, rage, and wanting to get even may be softened by values like forgiveness or other spiritual beliefs and practices.20 People who have found a spiritual community—a group of people meeting together for the purpose of enriching and expanding their spirituality—also benefit from increased social support. For instance, participation in charitable organizations, religious groups, social gatherings, or spiritual learning experiences can help members avoid isolation. A community may include retired members who offer childcare for working parents, support for those with addictions or mental health problems, shelter, and food for the homeless, or transportation to medical appointments. Spiritually active members may volunteer or receive help from other volunteers, all of which may enhance feelings of self-worth, security, and belonging. Additionally, the NCI cites stress reduction as one probable mechanism among spiritually healthy people for improved health and longevity and for better coping with illness.21 Chapter 3: Managing Stress and Coping with Life’s Challenge