Spirituality significantly impacts our physical and mental health — regardless of the type of rituals, belief systems, or religions to which someone might ascribe. That’s according to a recent study conducted at the University of Missouri, just the latest in a growing body of evidence about the mind-body connection and the role of spirituality in maintaining health.
Recently, a team of researchers at the University of Missouri conducted a survey that suggested spirituality often enhances a person’s overall health, including their mental health. The finding adds new dimensions to prior studies also conducted at the university which found that the mental health of those recovering from various medical conditions, such as cancer, stroke, and neurological trauma, was better in those holding positive spiritual beliefs, especially among those also enjoying the support of a community of like believers.
A growing body of research supports the notion that positive spirituality is correlated with overall health. And, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, such spirituality need not be based in a belief in God or rooted in any specific religious practice. Rather, the type of spirituality that appears to affect health can be more broadly defined as the way a person finds a connection to something larger, giving their existence a deeper meaning. And although the vehicle for that connection can come through a formal religion, it can also come through music, cosmic awareness, nature, art, philosophy, and other systems of belief. Positive spirituality appears to be correlated not only with shorter recovery times from serious illnesses but also with fewer self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse and poor health habits. It also appears to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and strengthen the immune system. Taken together, many studies suggest that when we feel a part of something, feel supported, find meaning even in our suffering, and maintain a positive attitude, we tend to be healthier generally and to bounce back more quickly from periods of ill health. From all the evidence, it appears that when we’re spiritually healthier, we’re healthier overall.
One of the more important findings of the Missouri study is that the benefits of spirituality were seen regardless of the type of rituals, belief systems, or religions to which someone might ascribe. The findings also suggested that spirituality itself might be considered a distinctive personality trait. And when all other personality traits are factored out, forgiveness seems to be the one spiritual trait that’s positively correlated with mental health. Letting go emotionally of the things that weigh us down improves not only our mood but also our physical health. And positive spirituality appears to be an effective way to cope with stress, reduce anxiety, and increase one’s overall sense of well-being.
A person’s belief system can have its negative side, too. For example, a person afflicted with a physical or mental illness might regard their misfortune as a curse, punishment for sin, or an indication of their unworthiness. And while the connection between negative spirituality and health is not yet well-understood, the positive aspects of spirituality clearly appear to have an impact on improving health. Feeling connected, feeling supported, and finding meaning all seem to play key roles in health and healing.
At the University of Minnesota, the Center for Spirituality and Healing provides information derived from past research, conducts ongoing research, and offers various educational courses and programs on health and healing. It’s long been known that mindfulness, meditation, purposeful living, and positive interpersonal engagement can all play important roles in fostering both mental and physical health. The center employs a multiple disciplinary team of researchers and educators who devise activities designed to increase awareness of the mind-body connection and the role of spirituality in maintaining health.
In recent years, it’s become quite clear how important a role a person’s individual spirituality can play in their overall health. But much more needs to be learned about how incorporating positive spirituality into the health care delivery system as a whole might affect treatment outcomes. Toward that end, the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health is working with other participating hospitals and medical centers to develop approaches and standards for integrating spirituality and health care. In so doing, the institute’s researchers hope not only to help create a more compassionate, holistic, and patient-centered health care environment but also to determine what aspects of incorporating spirituality into various service delivery systems actually improve patient care outcomes.
While there’s still a lot to be learned about the connection between spirituality and health, a review published by the American Academy of Family Physicians prompted the following recommendations for those seeking to maximize the benefits of the mind-body connection:
- Identify those things that give you a sense of inner peace, comfort, strength, love and connection.
- Make some time regularly to increase your spiritual awareness and health by doing spiritually uplifting and fulfilling things such as community service work, meditating, reading inspirational books, taking nature walks, doing yoga exercises, participating in a supportive group gathering, or attending a religious service.
As creatures of body, mind, and spirit, maintaining our health and well-being is a multifaceted enterprise. And given the abundance of evidence that spirituality significantly impacts our physical and mental health, we can expect continued research in this area for some time to come.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by