Spirituality: it's one big, loaded topic. And, while there are nearly as many systems of belief (or nonbelief) as there are people, being in touch with your spiritual side — however you define it — may actually affect your mental health and overall well-being.
According to Herbert Benson, M.D., Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School, spirituality can be connected to well-being by one key factor: stress. "Sixty to 90 percent of visits to healthcare professionals are for stress-related conditions: from anxiety and depression to high blood pressure, infertility, and insomnia," says Dr. Benson. To make true change towards a lower-stress lifestyle, Dr. Benson says that we have to tap into our relaxation response — our bodies' natural opposition to our stress response. "The relaxation response can be evoked by scores of techniques, such as prayer, meditation, and yoga, all of which involve repetition, a focus on the present, and a breaking of the train of everyday thinking." This rupturing of daily monotony leads to bigger thoughts, which — you guessed it — can lead to a spiritual awakening. Says Dr. Benson, "Many of the studies I've done show that the people that evoke their relaxation response more often are also more spiritual."
Harold G. Koenig, M.D., director of the Duke University Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, agrees that spirituality and well-being are linked. "There are over 300 studies that have examined this relationship, and close to 80 percent find significantly higher well-being among those who are more spiritual," says Dr. Koenig. But, as Dr. Benson says, the presence of a relationship between spirituality and well-being does not necessarily mean that the more spiritual you are, the better your state of mental health. Says Dr. Benson, "It may actually be that people with a positive state of well-being are more likely to self-report as being spiritual — but regardless, I've noticed a positive cycle of becoming more relaxed, and therefore more spiritual, and vice versa."
Of course, spirituality is anything but one-dimensional; there are different aspects of spirituality that can feed into positive or negative psychological outcomes. In the positive camp are activities that give random life events a sense of meaning and purpose, according to Dr. Koenig. "[They include] attending religious services, praying, reading religious scriptures, and having a deep intrinsic religious faith," he says. "These beliefs and activities are associated with more positive psychological outcomes, because these beliefs and activities give meaning to life events, especially difficult ones." Lisa Jane Miller, Ph.D., director of clinical psychology at Columbia University, says that spirituality (even outside of any certain religion) can help change one's worldview towards the positive: "A two-way living relationship between a person and a higher power — whether it's the universe or a creator — can help create a mindset that one can move through suffering and actually make trials into portholes of opportunity," she says.
At the same time, some experts say that there are aspects of a spiritual life (or the search for one) that can contribute to an anxious or doubtful mindset. According to Julie Exiline, Ph.D., director of clinical training at Case Western Reserve University, "Areas of struggle can include anger toward or doubts about God, struggles around moral issues and guilt, and even anxiety related to the devil or evil spirits." Nava Silton, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College, found support for these ideas in her 2013 study that strove to find a connection between one's perception of God and one's psychological health. Says Dr. Silton: "We discovered that the belief in a harsh and punishing God was linked to anxiety-related symptoms, while the belief in a benevolent God almost appeared to protect against anxiety disorders."
There can also be growing pains involved with searching for meaning and purpose through spirituality. "A spiritual path can have hard twists and turns," says Dr. Miller. "It doesn't mean that we don't suffer, simply that we have purpose beyond ourselves. Spirituality can involve growth, which can be painful. The 'sophomore slump,' for example, isn't just a college-age bummer — it's actually a biological substrate that we're all pre-dispositioned to experience in young adulthood, in which the part of our brain that deals with our existential thoughts has an awakening. These questions — such as, 'What is the purpose of my life? What is the meaning of all of this?' — are spiritual questions, and they can be difficult to answer."
But, as Dr. Koenig says, practice can make for a more positive M.O. "The longer a person has faith and uses their faith to form their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, the easier it is to implement that faith when times get rough," he says. And, while the process of figuring these things out may be painful, according to Dr. Miller, the payoff of coming to the other side of a spiritual journey may be more than worth it. "In the big picture, spirituality is the greatest source of thriving, resilience and flourishing in the human condition."
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