The importance of spiritual health
Spirituality, in a narrow sense, concerns itself with matters of the spirit. Spiritual matters are those involving humankind's ultimate nature, not only as material biological organisms, but as beings with a unique relationship to that which is beyond both time and the material world. As such the spiritual is traditionally contrasted with the material, the temporal and the worldly. A perceived sense of connection forms a central defining characteristic of spirituality — connection to a metaphysical reality greater than oneself, which may include an emotional experience of religious awe and reverence, or such states as satori or Nirvana. Equally importantly, spirituality relates to matters of sanity and of psychological health.
Spirituality is a tangible reality and not a common idealism in the trap of meditation or fantasy. It is the way you find meaning, hope, comfort and inner peace in your life. Many people find spirituality through religion. Some find it through music, art or a connection with nature. Others find it in their values and principles. It includes all aspects of the daily life of the believer. Each of us has a spirit and, therefore, a spiritual life, and we must be conscious about this fact. We consider that spirituality is not directly related to our physical health, because it is not its target, but to the spiritual health, that is important for each of us.
How is spirituality related to health?
No one really knows for sure. However, it seems the body, mind and spirit are connected. The health of any one of these elements seems to affect the health of the others.
Some research shows that things such as positive beliefs, comfort and strength gained from religion, meditation and prayer can contribute to healing and a sense of well-being. Improving your spiritual health may not cure an illness, but it may help you feel better, prevent some health problems and help you cope with illness or death.
Doctors and scientists once avoided the study of spirituality in connection to medicine, but findings within the past 10 years have made some take a second look. Studies show that religion and faith can help to promote good health and fight disease by:
- offering additional social supports, such as religious outreach groups
- improving coping skills through prayer and a philosophy that all things have a purpose
Although research on children has yet to be done, a number of studies focusing on adults point to the positive effects of spirituality on medical outcome:
- In a 7-year study of senior citizens, religious involvement was associated with less physical disability and less depression. Death rates were lower than expected before an important religious holiday, which suggested to researchers that faith might have postponed death in these cases.
- Elderly people who regularly attended religous services had healthier immune systems than those who didn't. They were also more likely to have consistently lower blood pressure.
- Patients undergoing open-heart surgery who received strength and comfort from their religion were three times more likely to survive than those who had no religious ties.
Spirituality in the Context of Chronic Illness
Joel Tsevat, M.D., Director of Outcomes Research in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati, is completing a study of the will to live in patients with HIV/AIDS. His team is using several standardized tools that measure different aspects of spirituality, such as a sense of meaning and peace and faith, religious coping measures, and involvement in organized and non-organized religious activity. They are also looking at measures of health status, health concerns, depression, self-esteem, and social support. The study involves interviews with 350 individuals with HIV/AIDS in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C.
Dr. Tsevat became interested in studying spirituality during earlier research with patients with HIV/AIDS. "Patients were telling us that they had discovered new meaning and purpose in their lives since being diagnosed with HIV," Dr. Tsevat said. "The spirituality theme emerged when we asked patients whether they would choose their health as it is or take a gamble between death and perfect health." People who were spiritual tended to be happier with their current health status and less likely to take the described risk.
"We tend to focus just on what medical professionals can address--physical functioning and mental health," said Dr. Tsevat. "In the scheme of things, I think spiritual well-being is also an important component of someone's quality of life."
Spirituality, Immunity, and Emotional Well-Being
Several NCCAM-supported researchers in New York City are exploring the impact of spirituality on the immune system and its role in emotional well-being among cancer patients.
Barry Rosenfeld, Ph.D., and graduate student Colleen McClain, M.A., of Fordham University, and William Breitbart, M.D., of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, published results in 2003 of an NCCAM-funded study on the effect of spiritual well-being on end-of-life despair in terminally ill cancer patients. They concluded that spiritual well-being offers some protection--a buffer effect--against end-of-life despair in patients for whom death is imminent. These researchers are now studying spirituality-based interventions to establish methods that can help engender a sense of peace and meaning.
"When people despair, they feel nothing they've done has had any meaning. We help them remember things they've forgotten during the throes of their illness so they can realistically place themselves in the world," Dr. Rosenfeld said. The approach is spiritually based, he said, but "we have tried to not have it linked to any particular religious framework, keeping it open to as many individuals who are interested."
To determine whether immune function is a link between spirituality and emotional well-being, the three researchers are also now collaborating, under another NCCAM grant, to measure spirituality and interleukin-6 (IL-6) levels in the blood among terminally ill cancer patients. "There is a small, but growing, body of literature linking immune function to mood, and IL-6 is the immune marker most highly correlated with mood states," Dr. Rosenfeld said. IL-6 is a protein that acts on other cells to regulate immune system function. It is one of several markers of inflammation, an important process in a variety of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, and is associated with increased stress and depression.
Spirituality and Mental Health
Religious and spiritual beliefs are an important part of how many people deal with life's joys and hardships. Faith can provide people with a sense of purpose and guidelines for living. When families face tough situations, including health problems, their religious beliefs and practices can help them fight feelings of helplessness, restore meaning and order to life situations, and promote regaining a sense of control. For some families, spirituality can be a powerful and important source of strength.
Medical studies have confirmed that spirituality can have a profound effect on mental states. In a study of men who were hospitalized, nearly half rated religion as helpful in coping with their illness. A second study showed that the more religious patients were, the more quickly they recovered from some disorders. A third study revealed that high levels of hope and optimism, key factors in fighting depression, were found among those who strictly practiced their religion.
How can I improve my spiritual health?
If you want to improve your spiritual health, you may want to try the following ideas. Remember, though, that everyone is different, so what works for others may not work for you. Do what is comfortable for you.
- Identify the things in your life that give you a sense of inner peace, comfort, strength, love and connection.
- Set aside time every day to do the things that help you spiritually. These may include doing community service or volunteer work, praying, meditating, singing devotional songs, reading inspirational books, taking nature walks, having quiet time for thinking, doing yoga, playing a sport or attending religious services.
“Sometimes people get the mistaken notion that spirituality is a separate department of life, the penthouse of existence. But rightly understood, it is a vital awareness that pervades all realms of our being.” (David Steindl-Rast)