Spirituality can mean something different to each of us. It can mean participating in an organized religion or it can be an individual practice you value, such as yoga or taking long walks in nature. It often involves some way of looking at your purpose in life or what’s beyond our immediate experience.
Many traditional cultures believed that our spirit and physical health were vitally connected, whereas modern Western medicine today has a tendency to only treat the body. But evidence is mounting that spiritual beliefs and practices can in fact have a significant influence on your health.
Many studies have shown that spirituality is associated with reduced mortality rates. Organizational activity, such as church attendance, is particularly linked to greater length of life.
One study followed a group of HIV-positive men and women for 17 years. Researchers found that the people who engaged in spiritual practices had a two to four times greater rate of survival. The spiritual thoughts and attitudes they determined were most beneficial included feelings of gratitude and forgiveness, reframing, overcoming spiritual guilt and spiritual empowerment.
Coping with Stress
Spirituality also appears to help us cope with stress. Various studies have shown that people with a higher level of self-reported spirituality have better regulated stress hormone levels than those who consider themselves non-spiritual.
In a study of women undergoing breast biopsies, the women with the lowest stress hormone levels were those who used prayer to cope with the situation. Another study looked at a group of people with sickle cell anemia, which can be a very painful condition. The people who attended church regularly reported significantly lower levels of pain. Their spiritual involvement seemed to help them cope with the pain more effectively.
Researchers believe spiritual beliefs can help people’s ability to cope by giving meaningto difficult life circumstances and providing a sense of purpose.
Either directly or indirectly, our spiritual beliefs can have a positive influence on our lifestyle choices. Many religious scriptures emphasize a person’s responsibility to care for and nourish their physical body and may give guidelines on how best to do this.
For instance, Seventh Day Adventists are often vegetarian due to their religious beliefs. Smoking and drinking are discouraged, as is the consumption of caffeine and rich foods. Studies have shown that Seventh Day Adventists have longer lives than the general population in various countries. They also have significantly lower rates of cancer and heart disease. It’s suggested this is due to their lifestyle and dietary choices.
Spirituality can also play an important role in rehabilitation from substance abuse. Programs with a strong spiritual component, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and similar Twelve-Step groups, are often very effective for addiction recovery.
Approximately 80 percent of all research on religion and spirituality looks at mental health. The majority of studies conclude that people with spiritual beliefs display more positive emotions, like hope and high self-esteem, have a lower risk of depression, anxiety and suicide, and enjoy a higher level of social stability and support.
These positive benefits are thought to stem from the optimistic worldview of many religions. The belief that a transcendental force, such as God, loves you and will respond to your needs gives people a sense of importance and control over their lives.
It’s not only organized religion that benefits mental health. Individual practices can also help. One study taught a group of adults a simple meditation technique to practice for 15 to 20 minutes twice daily. Researchers concluded that even this brief meditation training significantly improved the participants’ perceived stress levels, as well as their negative moods and emotions. Also, the people who meditated more often had better outcomes.
Many people have experienced spontaneous healing through prayer or other spiritual practices. Because these are often stories of one person’s experience, modern science has difficulty studying and verifying them after the healing has happened.
Although, one area science has been able to study is the effect of distance healing methods, such as prayer, energy healing, noncontact therapeutic touch, focused intentions and Reiki. In a review of 23 different studies, almost 60 percent of the research showed that distance healing had a beneficial effect.
For example, a 2004 study looked at women who had undergone in vitro fertility treatments in South Korea. Half of the women received prayers from groups in the USA, Canada and Australia. At the end of the study, the women who had been prayed for had nearly twice the pregnancy rate as those who had not received prayers.
The benefits religion and spirituality have on mental health seem to support your physical health as well. It’s recognized that positive emotions, social support and effective coping strategies all promote overall better health. Researchers believe this is what’s behind the physical benefits of spirituality.
Various studies have found that a greater degree of spirituality in a person’s life is linked to better cardiovascular health, improved immune and endocrine function, as well as a lower risk of cancer.