By: Brigid Curtis Ayer (For Verily Magazine)
Have you ever wondered if your faith or spirituality really has an impact on youth health and recovery? I have. Sporadically you will hear news segments featuring a person who has experienced a profound medical miracle. It’s a scenario where doctors can’t explain how a person’s cancerous tumor vanished. I’m a big believer in miracles. Yet, these profound miracles don’t happen every day to everyone. What about a person’s everyday spirituality? Does it help them heal in normal, not so profound health situations, and if it does, how?
In a 2003 journal article on Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health which appeared in the Journal of the American Psychologist, Jan 2003, the authors present evidence on nine hypotheses about the link between religion or spirituality as it relates to mortality, disability, or recovery from illness. In healthy participants, there is a strong, consistent, prospective, and up to 25 percent reduction in risk of mortality due to church attendance. The researchers also found that religion or spirituality protects against many illnesses largely mediated by the healthy lifestyle it encourages.
There is no denying that that many faith traditions or practices of spirituality encourage healthy lifestyles which contribute to overall health. Yet, I’ll share my observations and experience of five benefits to spirituality that contribute positively to a person’s overall health and wellness.
Connectivity…. A feeling of “I’m not alone.”
Faith and spirituality give you a connection to a higher power. You may call that higher power, Jesus, Allah, Creator, Supreme being, Energy, or Buddha. As as a Catholic Christian, I’m calling on the name of Jesus, but for many, the name isn’t as significant psychologically as is the availability to their higher power when it comes to health benefits. It is the sense, or reality that there is something, someone or a force outside yourself that you can call upon in time of need. For me this is a very powerful tool to help. At the end of the day when I’ve done all I can do, I know there is a higher power that can help me, heal me, improve my situation. I don’t have to go it alone.
2. Community–A social support groups goes a long way.
Spirituality or a faith life also many times comes along with a church community, or a group of believers who share the common beliefs that you do. It could be an online community, a Mosque, as synagogue, a Church or temple. These are people of faith gathering to worship their God or reach their higher power, and do so in community with other believers. Our American individualism, fast-paced life, mobility and culture has changed drastically over the past 10 decades. It has, in some respects, removed a natural, built-in community from our everyday lives. Neighbors, who used to know each other and help each other out, now are not sure the names of those who live next door. In this sense, a faith community plays a vital role in allowing people to feel as part of a spiritual family, and connectedness, not just with their higher power, but a connectedness with each other. Even those who may feel disconnected with the basic community of society, the biological family, have a supernatural family, community that their faith life brings them.As women, we are naturally-gifted nurturers. We can identify with the importance of have a social support structure. Even when I feel lousy and down for the count with the a stomach bug, I feel so much better if I have a loving significant other, child, friend or parent by my side to help. Even if they can’t make me feel better physically, knowing they are there really makes me feel better. It’s a comfort. Human beings weren’t made to live in isolation from each other or our higher power. And religion and spirituality connects us to both.
3. Meditation/Prayer… allows the mind, body, and heart to soar.
It can provide a perspective or outlet upon which to reflect upon your situation. It is an appointment with God or that higher power you seek to gain wisdom or guidance from. It can be a time of union with God, nature, energy, or a simple disconnect from the hectic day. Prayer and medication also has been found to provide relief, or hope in healing. It can provide positive feelings which speeds recovery. Prayer or medication provides us with an opportunity to reduce stress. We can access our higher power during a stressful time giving us not only a person or higher power in which to turn, yet in doing so the act of meditating can actually bring our blood pressure down, and reduce stress.
4. Purpose, meaning or understanding to life.
Spirituality gives meaning to life, suffering and death…. Depending on the specific faith a person subscribes to, the set of beliefs may provide meaning or an explanation for the difficulty one is going through, thereby helping a person to better cope. Each faith tradition comes with a narrative story or a moral “to do” list of sorts. So spirituality provides answers as to where I came from, where I’ve been, to where I’m going and how to go about getting there. For many, including myself, it provides answers to many of life’s burning questions, namely why am I here and what should I do with my life? It gives purpose, direction to those who are seeking answers. And those who have purpose in life, find life more intentional and meaningful. There is a goal, and game plan.
5. Hope..the four letter word that is very underrated.
Hope is defined as a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. Given the other benefits of spirituality, I think the best of them all is hope. Whether it be hope for personal fulfilment in the here and now or hope for eternal happiness in the next life, or next time around, the human emotion of hope can be evoked in many of the faith traditions or spirituality practices. While the message of hope is explicitly prevalent within the Judeo-Christian theology, spirituality outside the Judeo-Christian faith certainly provides opportunities for its followers to experience hope. Hope for a new job. Hope to get through a crisis. Hope for something better to come along.
Dr. Jay Fawver, a psychiatrist and host of the popular P.B.S. television show, “Matters of the Mind with Dr. Jay Fawver” has noticed first-hand the impact faith has on his clients, but cautions people not to rely solely on spirituality to cure illness. “Research shows that one’s level of religiosity or involvement in their spirituality is directly related to one’s over-all health and recovery,” Fawver says. “One’s faith life can certainly help in lessening stress and depression, and help one recover from it.”
Dr. Jeff Levin, Ph.D, M.P.H. a social epidemiologist who has been collecting data for 30 years to see if there is a link between spirituality and health says that 80 percent to 90 percent of these studies show there is something positive going on. Levin, who examined over 200 studies on faith and health, discusses the similarities in his book called, “God, Faith, and Health.” Two recognizable similarities between faith and health that he’s found are 1) regular church goers or those who have a common spiritual community tend to have a social support structure which is known to boost person’s health; and 2) meditation, prayer and public worship services generate positive emotions, which can benefit one’s overall good health.
Harold G. Koenig, M.D., who has conducted research as director of the Center for Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University has found that those who benefit the most from religion and spirituality are those who both attend religious services and practice personal prayer or spiritual reading at home, and those who do so on a regular basis.
Koenig, who leads seminars for Harvard Medical School Continuing Education program and author of seven books on the subject, found that people who regularly attend church services, pray individually and read the Bible are less likely to suffer from certain types of hypertension, have stronger immune systems; tend to be hospitalized less often and leave the hospital sooner than those who rarely or never attend church. He also found that the more “into” or the deeper the person’s religious faith, the less likely they are to be crippled by depression during or after hospitalization due to a physical illness.
As we approach the New Year, perhaps in addition to the typical “I will lose 10 pounds resolution”, we could discover better health awaits us by allowing ourselves to encounter others and approach that higher power in a new way… knowing all the while…it’s good for our health!!