If it wasn’t already clear, an individual’s spiritual needs change over the course of a lifetime.
But according to a Gallup poll, 69 percent of respondents noted that they want to experience spiritual growth in their daily lives.
While most Americans rely on their faith and spirituality for deeper meaning in their lives, this internal struggle can impact overall health as well.
Table of Contents
- What is Spiritual Health?
- How Spiritual Health Impacts Physical Health
- How Spiritual Health Impacts Mental Health
- How to Promote Spiritual Health
What is Spiritual Health?
The basis of spirituality rests on the idea that life is meaningful and that each person has a purpose.
While religion may serve as a component of spiritual health, people do not have to follow any specific religion to be spiritually healthy.
However, a common misconception is that people must maintain religious affiliations to reap the benefits of inner peace.
But beyond religion, values, ethics, principles, and morals help shape one’s spiritual identity. These elements can exist independently of religion or coexist with your devotion.
Despite the varying religious views of Americans, Gallup’s poll found that 80 percent of respondents believe in absolute good and evil. This moral common ground highlights the fact that spirituality is farther reaching than religious ideologies alone.
But how do you know when you have achieved spiritual health?
When it comes to recognizing spiritual health, signs of spiritual wellness, according to the University of New Hampshire, include:
- Developing a purpose in life
- Being able to spend reflective time alone
- Taking time to reflect on life events and their meanings
- Recognizing right and wrong and acting accordingly
- Understanding and articulating what you believe in
- Caring for others
- Practicing forgiveness and compassion
Maintaining spiritual health does not mean there is no conflict in your life.
Instead, it means that you feel strong and balanced enough to manage conflict as it arises and that you process events and move on rather than dwell on what you cannot control.
That said, spiritual health is a lifelong journey, not something you can visit one time. Keeping tabs on your internal compass and your spiritual health can affect every area of your life, including relationships, family, and work.
How Spiritual Health Impacts Physical Health
Ancient cultures may have turned to their religious idols to ask for good health and wellness, but modern spiritualists understand that there is an intricate connection between spiritual health and physical health.
The relationship between the mind and body is stronger than you may think.
The Placebo Effect
One clear example of the impact our mentality has on our health is that of the placebo effect.
One cardiologist at Harvard School of Medicine called the placebo effect “remembered wellness,” one medical journal reported, echoing the sentiment that our beliefs can influence health outcomes.
Further, the article’s discussion of Herbert Benson, MD, and his placebo research highlighted the fact that in his studies, anywhere from 16 to 60 percent of patients benefited from placebo use versus taking pharmaceuticals.
Benson also suggested that the patient-physician relationship had an impact on the likelihood of the placebo effect, as both the patient and the doctor must believe that the therapeutic method will work.
The bottom line is that when people believe they are ingesting something that will make them better, their bodies respond to this positive thinking. When you feel optimistic about your course of treatment, that may just make said treatment work better.
That said, there are tragic stories of profoundly spiritual or religious populations who rely on spiritual healing in cases where medicine could have saved a life. For that reason, it’s essential to maintain a healthy outlook on one’s spirituality and work with professionals when dealing with life-threatening diseases.
Still, thinking positive thoughts can do wonders when you’re having a bad day, so why shouldn’t it work when it comes to your physical recovery and wellbeing?
Studies Show Positive Perks of Spiritual Health
In general, most studies surrounding the topic of spiritual health rely on participants’ religious affiliations to guide research.
Since many people feel that spirituality and religion are deeply intertwined, many studies look at the relationship between religious services and patient health outcomes to determine the impact of spiritual health.
For example, a review of studies on chaplaincy, pastoral counseling, and other religious support services in hospitals concluded that patient satisfaction rates were higher with spiritual support in-hospital.
Although figures connecting chaplaincy to positive patient health outcomes are hard to come by, the review noted that patients who are happier and more comfortable with their healthcare teams are more proactive about recovery and future wellness.
The review also discussed the potential adverse effects of spiritual struggle in patients who are facing health challenges. If people are experiencing an internal battle regarding religion or spiritual beliefs, they may suffer poorer health outcomes. One solution is for medical professionals to inquire about and offer referrals to professional chaplains or other caregivers.
The Role of Spirituality in Health Care
Because people often turn inward to their spiritual beliefs to get them through stressful situations, medical professionals must recognize and accommodate patients’ spiritual health while addressing physical ailments.
This perspective supports the holistic or whole-patient view of many modern medical professionals, but spiritual support is currently uncommon in hospitals and doctors’ offices.
Unfortunately, many patients are often on their own when it comes to developing and maintaining spiritual health, whether they’re dealing with significant health challenges or not.
How Spiritual Health Impacts Mental Health
Because spirituality is an internalized perspective, it is more closely related to mental health than most people acknowledge.
While some religions refute the existence of mental health conditions in the first place, a healthy approach to spirituality can help promote mental wellness, too.
Religion and Spirituality: It’s All in Your Head
Kenneth I. Pargament, Ph.D., knows a lot about religion and spirituality as they relate to mental health.
He wrote two books that discuss psychology, religion, and psychotherapy, and has observed that religion and spirituality often help people cope with stressful and grief-related situations.
In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Dr. Pargament explained that religion and spirituality are helpful for people who are coping with major life stressors.
Further, he notes that apart from support from religious clergy, people often deal with difficult life transitions through healthy rituals and spiritual forgiveness.
In practice, Pargament clarified, psychologists should address patients’ religious and spiritual beliefs as part of diagnosing conditions. He also notes that “spiritually integrated approaches to treatment are as effective as other treatments.”
Because psychologists already receive cultural sensitivity training, addressing spirituality with patients only takes that understanding a step further.
At the same time, Pargament says, framing such spirituality and mindfulness exercises as meditation and yoga in a secular way helps make them accessible to all people seeking out spirituality. However, he does point out that taking all “sacred” connotations out of the spirituality equation doesn’t help, either.
Ultimately, transcendence, finitude, and connectedness are all crucial elements of spirituality, and those topics are not always entirely secular.
Spirituality and Treating Mental Health Disorders
For centuries, people thought that adherence to religion was a form of mental illness. But as one review of spirituality and mental health studies elaborated, recent research supports religion and spirituality as sources of stress reduction and positive coping strategies.
Psychiatrists recognize that spirituality is an integral part of patients’ lives, and therefore, their recovery.
According to the paper on spirituality, mental health has two dimensions: absence of mental illness, and presence of a well-adjusted personality. Spirituality addresses many aspects of adjustment in daily life, with many of these elements buried deep in our subconscious minds.
One study involved 226 patients who received care and rehabilitation for alcohol dependence, where people who reported spirituality had better outcomes with maintaining abstinence from alcohol.
Another study showed that patients with schizophrenia who spent more time engaging in religious activities faced better prognoses than those who were nonreligious.
These studies all reinforce the fact that spirituality has a complex impact on mental health, and regular spirituality practices can help mitigate the effects of mental disorders. Particularly for people with a family history of significant mental health challenges, maintaining spiritual health can prove a pathway to overall health.
How to Promote Spiritual Health
Just like physical health requires active participation, so does spiritual health.
You cannot expect to experience optimal spiritual health if your life is consistently in a state of chaos. That said, regardless of what is going on in your life or the lives of those around you, developing spiritual health can happen despite hectic daily living. Here are a few strategies for promoting spiritual health.
Spiritual people are less prone to self-destructive behaviors, Kids Health reports, and that means starting early in life is a massive step in the right direction.
That might mean partaking in religious activities as a family or outlining the household’s spiritual guidelines.
People who feel strongly about their personal beliefs are happier with their lives, and built-in social support through religious groups and events can contribute to those overall feelings of positivity. The benefits continue into adulthood and beyond, too, giving people strength as they move through life’s phases.
Apart from religious involvement, Kids Health recommends other measures to encourage family spiritual wellness. Those include:
- Explore your family’s roots, history, and values
- Get involved with your community
- Reminisce about positive family events
- Share meditation or quiet time as a family
- Explore nature
- Read about spirituality and share together
Is yoga a spiritual thing?
It’s a common question for people who are just beginning to explore the benefits of this centering physical activity. While many of the poses have roots that come from religious interpretations of ancient Indian culture, practicing yoga doesn’t require any devotion.
Yoga does, however, require focus and concentration. It encourages people to exercise their bodies, but it also prompts self-reflection during prolonged poses. Focusing on breathing, balance, and maintaining proper posture will earn the most benefits from yoga.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, yoga can help reduce back pain and lower the risk of depression that comes with chronic pain. Yoga also seems to help lower blood pressure and heart rate, both of which skyrocket when people experience stress.
Without zeroing in on a specific set of religious beliefs, meditation “primes the mind for spiritual experiences,” Huffington Post reported, as a psychologist and his colleagues tested their theory.
The first step in meditation is mindfulness, and that openness leads to awe, researchers found.
Participants in the study who listened to a mindfulness audio tape were more likely to experience a “greater awe reaction,” while people who listened to non-mindfulness control audio reported a lesser reaction.
Altruism is both a selfless method of helping others and a means of achieving improved spiritual health.
People who support others often feel happier about themselves, but according to Stanford, altruism is not an innate trait in all of us. Altruism tends to develop based on relationships, and whether we feel like people care for us.
While selfishness may be the default setting for most of us, given humans’ inclination toward self-preservation, intentional acts of altruism can help improve our spiritual wellbeing.
Choosing to pay forward an act of kindness can improve your mood and prime you for continuing to act selflessly in the future.
People who carry around grudges can tell you; it’s hard to find positivity and inner peace when you’re harboring hateful feelings.
The good news is, even people who have experienced severe trauma can learn to apply forgiveness and move on.
While most religions have rules about doling out forgiveness, you don’t have to subscribe to a specific set of beliefs to reap the benefits. John Hopkins Medicine notes that unresolved conflicts can affect your physical and mental health, setting you up for higher risks of heart attack and depression.
Feeling angry all the time puts your body into a constant battle between fight and flight, and holding onto negative feelings can lead to depression, anxiety, stress, and other harmful side effects. As John Hopkins’ experts agree, forgiveness is a choice, but a critical one when it comes to your health.
The health benefits of forgiveness don’t only apply to others. Forgiving yourself for past mistakes is an essential part of moving forward in life, both in spiritual and mental terms.