By Denise Mann
Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Photo by Everyday Health
Health Benefits of Spirituality
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 evidence-based information.
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 the conference.
Here are 6 ways that spirituality can boost your health and well-being.
Restoring a Sense of Purpose
Talking with a chaplain — a priest or other religious leader who performs services for the military, universities, hospitals, or other institutions — can help people come to terms with fractured relationships and regrets, said Laura Dunn, MD, a professor of psychiatry and director of psycho-oncology at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
Dunn’s research, presented at the conference, showed that just three 45-minute sessions with a chaplain was 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,” Dr. Dunn said. 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 said.
Isolation is a major risk for depression, but spirituality and organized religion encourage social engagement, said William McCann, PsyD, a psychotherapist specializing in family and community medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Volunteering or being involved in a group or spiritual community provides social support that can reduce risk for depression, he said, whether the “community” is a yoga class, a church group, or an online group.
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 them out of the moment,” said the Rev. Kevin Massey, MDiv, BCC, vice president of mission and spiritual care for Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill.
“Even though they are still in the storm, the anchor is connected to something else,” he said.
Tuning Out Stress
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 risks — but talking to a chaplain allows people to reflect on the meaning of what they’re doing,” saidKaren Steinhauser, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
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. Both people who were religious and those who weren’t benefited, the study showed.
Boosting Immune Function
Meditating, praying, or even taking a walk in nature can help boost immune system function, said Kelly Turner, PhD, a New York City-based integrative oncologist and 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 said. "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 the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity in 2012 found that an eight-week program of meditation did boost immune system function.
Enhancing Thinking Ability
“When you give up to God or a higher power, you gain a sense of control,” saidGail Gross, PhD, EdD, a family psychologist in Houston, and that has a positive effect on health and wellness — including cognitive abilities.
"You can relax and are not distracted by negative thoughts,” she explained. “Your blood pressure levels go down and blood flow to the brain increases, so your memory gets better and your thinking becomes clearer.”
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