Spirituality, religion, and prayer can play an important role in wellness. That’s not just the point of view of spiritual practitioners but rather the findings of a growing body of research.
Much of that came to light at a conference of spiritual caregivers held at the New York Academy of Medicine in March 2014. Whether treating people with serious illness or helping those who are well stay that way, spiritual care has the potential to be a powerful intervention in patient care, according to some of the research presented at that conference.
While there’s been an increase in data and research on the subject, what complicates matters a bit from a scientific perspective is the difficulty in defining spirituality in a concrete, measurable way. We typically understand it as connecting to something larger than yourself and your worldly, material concerns, or seeking and connecting to something transcendent or sacred, but there’s no universally accepted standard of what that means in practice. For some people, it could involve the rituals of organized religion, of adhering to a belief system as well as having a sense of community and support. It could mean talking about your situation with a chaplain — a priest or other religious leader who performs services for the military, universities, hospitals, or other institutions. For others, spirituality might center on a quieting, transformative, individual meditative practice.
In an effort to gauge the clinical applicability of the many connections and associations between spirituality and mental health, a review of research, published in 2015 in the journal Psychological Medicine, examined the impact of religious or spiritual interventions in randomized clinical trials. While the review authors noted the lack of standardization in interventions and pointed out the need for more studies in this area, they found that such interventions did have benefits, including reduction of anxiety.
In addition to its effect on mental health, researchers have also looked at the role of spirituality and mindfulness in caring for chronic diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis) and cancer. A review of studies, published in 2015 in the journal Cancer Management and Research, found “accumulating evidence” suggesting that mindfulness-based interventions can help lower psychological distress, sleep disturbance, and fatigue, as well as promote a better quality of life in people with cancer.
Here are six ways that spirituality can aid in boosting your health and well-being, whether you’re facing an illness or caring for someone who is.
Restoring a Lost Sense of Purpose and Finding Meaning
Talking with a chaplain can help people come to terms with fractured relationships and regrets, says Laura Dunn, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
Dr. Dunn’s research, presented at the conference, showed that just three 45-minute sessions with a chaplain were helpful for people with serious illness. But the benefits aren’t limited to those who are ill.
“At a given time during a health crisis or time of acute stress, core spiritual needs will emerge, and the chaplain identifies what that core spiritual need is,” Dunn says. It may be the need for meaning and direction, renewed self-worth, or reconciliation. “I was stunned at the numbers and intensity of some of the psycho-spiritual progress these patients made,” she says.
Preventing Isolation and the Risk for Depression
Isolation is a major risk for depression, but spirituality and organized religion encourage social engagement, says William McCann, PsychD, a psychotherapist specializing in family and community medicine, formerly at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Volunteering or being involved in a group or spiritual community provides social support that can reduce the risk for depression, he says, whether the community is a yoga class, a church group, or an online group.
Providing Hope to Help Relieve Depression
Spirituality may provide a sense of hope to counter the hopelessness linked to depression.
“There is this common human tendency to be stuck in the moment, but reminiscing about a time in life that was happier or in which they were stronger can take [people] out of the moment,” says the Rev. Kevin Massey, the vice president for mission and spiritual care at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois.
“Even though they are still in the storm, the anchor is connected to something else,” he says.
Managing the Stress That Comes With Caregiving
As a coping mechanism for stress, spirituality can be especially helpful to caregivers. “Caregiving presents a lot of demands — physical stress, emotional, and financial — and even increases personal health risk, but talking to a chaplain allows people to reflect on the meaning of what they’re doing,” says Karen Steinhauser, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.
Another study presented at the conference found that chaplains who connected with caregivers over the phone for three sessions helped them resolve challenges in the relationship or in caregiving and even addressed issues of forgiveness. People who were and weren’t religious both benefited, the study showed.
Improving the Function of Your Immune System
Meditating, praying, or even taking a walk in nature can help boost immune system function, says Kelly Turner, PhD, a New York City–based cancer researcher and the author of Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds.
“It’s not what people believe in but whether they had a daily practice that made the difference,” she says. “When you are in deep prayer or meditation, your fight-or-flight response goes off and your rest-and-repair turns on. This allows your immune system to supercharge your whole body and is incredibly healing, whether you are under stress or have an actual illness or are trying to prevent illness or stress.”
A small study published in 2012 in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that an 8-week program of meditation modified gene expression in immune cells to be less inflammatory.
Enhancing Your Ability to Think Clearly and Positively
“When you give up to God or a higher power,” says Gail Gross, PhD, a family psychologist in Houston, “you gain a sense of control.” And that has a positive effect on health and wellness, including cognitive abilities.
“You can relax and are not distracted by negative thoughts,” she explains. “Your blood pressure levels go down and blood flow to the brain increases, so your memory gets better and your thinking becomes clearer.”