Spirituality and Health

In the quiet deliberation after a serious diagnosis, in the summoning of fortitude to face difficult treatments, in the watershed moment that induces genuine life change, health takes on a deeper association. Throughout the course of daily wellness choices, we look to information, logic and routine. But when we find ourselves in ominous physical territory, we’re often moved to look up from the books and probe beyond their reason. It’s a motivation deeper than fear, more complex than desolation. Whatever our spiritual leanings, illness – like all crisis – leads us to inhabit more profound dimensions of ourselves. We become seekers journeying toward a new or reaffirmed center of meaning and connectedness.

What we mean here, of course, isn’t necessarily religious doctrine but the broad sphere experts characterize as spiritual wellness. In part practice (perhaps), in part principle, it’s mostly a self-concept, an outlook from which we view and feel connected to the world – our own and others’ existence. For some of us, spirituality means belief in a sacred tradition and adherence to its tenets. For others, it’s a distinct but indefinable perception of larger meaning and design to what exists. For still others, it’s a sense of the sublime but without the metaphysical framework; a transcendent, albeit natural, state of human consciousness.

However we individually define it in our lives, spirituality appears to hold sway over our physiological well-being, aiding both physical and mental health.

From enhanced immune status for cancer patients to lower risk for depression (PDF), to slower progression of Alzheimer’s, spiritual actualization yields protective health benefits. Nonetheless, skepticism exists about the design of many previous studies, and critics suggest that true causation or correlations between spirituality and health outcomes are still suspect. Researchers, in reviewing and designing studies, are still trying to pinpoint the exact mechanisms that confer actual benefit. Is it about participation in religious communities (which adds the variables of social support and lifestyle behaviors)? Is it intrinsic spiritual perspective? The picture is still convoluted. Both factors show benefit among different studies, but personal spirituality appears to have the most consistent, independent impact in some health-related measurements. On an obvious physical level, meditative practices like prayer induce the relaxation response that can help counter stress and enhance immune function as well as promote overall hormonal balance. The power of faith, also, has been likened to the placebo effect, a psychological and/or physiological response to inactive treatment that is highly influenced by patient expectations and attitude.

Spirituality is commonly and less controversially credited with a mental “centering” influence. Faith of whatever nature is often believed to ground us in the midst of unsettling change like serious illness. Beyond the graceful acceptance of circumstances, however, spirituality can shape our perception of a diagnosis or life with a chronic disease. It can help us achieve peace in the midst of pain and arouse a stamina that surpasses what we believe to be our own. Although physicians note the potential resignation or resistance to treatment some people embrace as a result of religious views, most care providers believe spirituality can play a positive and empowering role for their patients. If patients feel stability and tranquility in their psychological experience of a disease, they can direct their full energy toward healing and maximizing treatment efforts.

Increasingly, the interaction of spirituality and medical care is playing out beyond its traditional realm of palliative care and hospice services. Doctors and health administrators are exploring the benefits of engaging patients’ personal spirituality in active disease treatment. What used to be fringe novelty is now seen as means for pragmatic, holistic care. No longer the rare exception, integrative medicine models, centers for spirituality and healing, and workshops on faith and patient treatment are becoming mainstays at major health facilities and universities across the country. Among the developments, research has reviewed and confirmed the benefits of spiritual support in rehabilitation settings to assist those who are disabled. Another study highlights the “spiritual self-concept” as a “prime determinant of health” for those recovering from critical injury.

Spirituality, however a patient defines it, isn’t a magic elixir of course. It’s not a guarantee for a given outcome or an emotional panacea for the fatigue, work and heartache that come with serious health challenges. People of deep faith as well as those with no spiritual associations die of disease and must still traverse the disorienting landscape of grief. Nonetheless, personal spirituality or a regard for the sublime in this life offers us a glimpse of significance, order and continuity beyond ourselves. In this regard, spirituality serves the same purposes as it has for all of human history. Spiritual tradition offers a context for ongoing meaning and a communal narrative for hope. In times of difficulty, it fosters and engages the power within, however we individually view its source.

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