Spirituality and Wellness
When people feel ill, they may not necessarily think about their spiritual resources at that time. This varies, of course, but most people think of the medical community as the first line of resource. For most people, it is. However, there are times when your mental, emotional, and spiritual mindset can make it big difference in how you feel. The attributions and appraisals that you make about your illness can influence your experience of your illness, as well as your mental set about how and whether you will heal.
Even if you don't have a formal religion, studies have found that a sense of awe can benefit mental and physical well-being. Being in natural, green spaces can also have a positive influence on mood, according to an article in Lancet Journal of Planetary Health. Nature is often a source of all, wonder, strength, and peace. Kristin Neff, PhD and Christopher Germer, PhD, in their work on mindful self compassion, recommend taking pleasure walks in nature as a way to foster greater self compassion and improve wellness.
Have you ever thought of spirituality as a resource in your healing? Some people rely heavily on faith in a larger force than themselves to get through difficult times and heal from illnesses. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step groups are one example of calling upon a force greater than oneself to cope with stress and prevent relapse on drugs and alcohol, as well as addictive behaviors like gambling, overeating, and compulsive spending. Of course, not everyone is strong to the traditional concept of God, but perhaps you don't have to be religious to tap into the power of spirituality for wellness.
In a qualitative study by Linda Darrell (2016), people with end-stage renal disease who drew on their religious beliefs for meaning, strength, and hope it seemed to have a less upsetting experience of their illness than those who did not. Some of the themes that were found in the study were that “prayer develops faith and strength” and that it develops faith, which in turn supports “coping and hope” (p. 193).[i]
Many of the people in Darrell's study relied on God to get them through this difficult experience. Their faith also help them reduce interpersonal conflict in their homes, guided them in decision-making, help them bear emotional and physical pain and weariness, and to adapt and change to the demands of the illness. Some found that their belief in God preventing them from giving up in life; for others it allowed them to face their mortality. People who did not have a religious sense of spirituality found solace and hope in nature or in having a good-hearted lifestyle.
Other studies have found that a focus on positive emotion can be spiritual, such as using loving-kindness meditation and focusing on gratitude for what the person already has. Increasing optimism can also have a real effect on wellness, although it’s important to distinguish between unrealistic optimism and a positive attitude that fosters self-efficacy and an active interest in one’s own well-being.[ii] Optimism seems to help one’s health most prominently in middle age, based on a longitudinal study by George Vailliant, who found the most robust correlation between optimism and good health at age 45.[iii] These can help lift people who have chronic illness as well as those who are physically healthy. Mindfulness-based stress reduction can help people with pain and other mental and physical illnesses focus on their body in the present moment without judgment or catastrophic thinking.[iv]
Spirituality can also help people gain a greater perspective on the crises and losses in their lives. In discussing post traumatic growth, Dr. Seligman discusses how each experience has both positive and negative aspects: “Loss and gain both happen. Grief and gratitude both happen. Vulnerability and strength both happen[v]” (p. 162). When we view the potentially traumatic incidents in our lives, we can choose to think about how we got through it. What resources are we called upon to transcend that particular passage of our lives? This can be more advantageous than focusing on all the ways that it hurt or damaged us.
There are various ways that spirituality can help us heal mentally and physically. It might be helpful to ask yourself how you are using spirituality in your life to make yourself feel better and improve your quality of life. Whether you’re connecting to nature, living more mindfully in the present, or participating in an organized religion, connecting to a power greater than yourself maybe a helpful adjunct to your wellness plan.
[i] Darrell, L. (2016). Faith that God cares: the experiences spirituality with African-American hemodialysis patients. Social Work & Christianity, 43(2), 189-212.
[ii] Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer In Positive Psychology. New York, New York: Oxford University press, Inc.
[iii] cf Peterson, 2006.
[iv] Weir, K. (2014). Beyond tired: chronic fatigue syndrome remains misunderstood and understudied. Psychologists are among those trying to change that. American Psychological Association Monitor, 45(9).
[v] Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding Of Happiness And Well-Being. New York, NY: atria paperback, a division of Simon & Schuster.