What is spirituality?
Spirituality has been defined in numerous ways. These include: a belief in a
power operating in the universe that is greater than oneself; a sense of
interconnectedness with all living creatures; and an awareness of the purpose
and meaning of life and the development of personal, absolute values. Although
spirituality is often associated with religious life, many believe that personal
spirituality can be developed outside of religion. Acts of compassion and
selflessness, altruism, and the experience of inner peace are all
characteristics of spirituality. Many Americans are becoming interested in the
role of spirituality in their health and healthcare. This may be because of
dissatisfaction with the impersonal nature of our current medical system, and
the realization that medical science does not have answers to all questions
about health and wellness.
What is the history of spirituality and healthcare?
In most healing traditions and through generations of healers in the early
beginnings of Western medicine, concerns of the body and spirit were
intertwined. But with the coming of the scientific revolution and the
Enlightenment, non-rational considerations were removed from the medical system.
Today, however, a growing number of studies reveal that spirituality may play a
bigger role in the healing process than the medical community had previously
How does spirituality influence health?
Spiritual practices tend to improve coping skills and social support, foster
feelings of optimism and hope, promote healthy behavior, reduce feelings of
depression and anxiety, and encourage a sense of relaxation. By alleviating
stressful feelings and promoting healing ones, spirituality can positively
influence immune, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels), hormonal, and
nervous systems. An example of a religion that promotes a healthy lifestyle is
Seventh Day Adventists. Those who follow this religion, a particularly healthy
population, are instructed by their Church not to consume alcohol, eat pork, or
smoke tobacco. In a ten-year study of Seventh-Day Adventists in the Netherlands,
researchers found that Adventist men lived 8.9 years longer than the national
average, and Adventist women lived 3.6 years longer. For both men and women, the
chance of dying from cancer or heart disease was 60 and 66 percent less,
respectively, than the national average.
Again, the health benefits of religion and spirituality do not stem solely
from healthy lifestyles. Many researchers believe that certain beliefs,
attitudes, and practices associated with being a spiritual person influence
health. In a recent study of people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome
(AIDS), those who had faith in God, compassion toward others, a sense of inner
peace, and were religious had a better chance of surviving for a long time than
those who did not live with such belief systems. Qualities like faith, hope, and
forgiveness and the use of social support and prayer seem to have a noticeable
effect on health and healing.
- Faith. A person's most deeply held beliefs strongly
influence his or her health. Some researchers believe that faith increases the
body's resistance to stress. In a 1988 study of women undergoing breast
biopsies, the women with the lowest stress hormone levels were those who used
their faith and prayer to cope with stress.
- Hope. Without hope—a positive
attitude that a person assumes in the face of
difficulty—many people become depressed and are more
prone to illness. In a 35-year study of Harvard graduates, researchers found
that those graduates who expressed hope and optimism lived longer and had fewer
illnesses in their lifetime.
- Forgiveness. A practice that is encouraged by many
spiritual and religious traditions, forgiveness is a release of hostility and
resentment from past hurts. In 1997, a Stanford University study found that
college students trained to forgive someone who had hurt them were significantly
less angry, more hopeful, and better able to deal with emotions than students
not trained to forgive. A more recent survey of 1,400 adults found that
willingness to forgive oneself and others and the feeling that one is forgiven
by God have beneficial health effects. Some researchers suggest that emotions
like anger and resentment cause stress hormones to accumulate in the blood, and
that forgiveness reduces this build-up.
- Love and Social Support. A close network of family and
friends that lends help and emotional support has been found to offer protection
against many diseases. Researchers believe that people who experience love and
support tend to resist unhealthy behaviors and feel less stressed. In a study of
a close-knit Italian-American community in Pennsylvania, researchers found that
the death rate from heart attack was half that of the United States' average.
Researchers concluded that the strong social support network helped protect this
population from heart disease.
- Prayer. The act of putting oneself in the presence of or
conversing with a higher power has been used as a means of healing across all
cultures throughout the ages. Today, many Americans believe that prayer is an
important part of daily life. In a 1996 poll, one half of doctors reported that
they believe prayer helps patients, and 67 percent reported praying for a
patient. Intercessory prayer (asking a higher power to intervene on behalf of
another either known or unknown to the person praying; also called distance
prayer or distance healing) is also being studied. Although it is particularly
difficult to study the effect of distance prayer, current research in coronary
care units (intensive care units in hospitals devoted to people with severe
heart disease, like those who just suffered a heart attack) suggests that there
is benefit. Compared to those who were not prayed for, patients who were prayed
for showed general improvements in the course of their illness, less
complications, and even fewer deaths.
What illnesses and conditions respond well to spirituality?
As programs with a strong spiritual component, such as Alcoholics Anonymous,
show, spiritual disciplines may be especially effective for drug and alcohol
Results from several studies indicate that people with strong religious and
spiritual beliefs heal faster from surgery, are less anxious and depressed, have
lower blood pressure, and cope better with chronic illnesses such as arthritis,
diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and spinal cord injury. In addition, new
research is also suggesting that distance healing (see earlier explanation) can
help reduce pain, swelling, and tenderness in those with rheumatoid arthritis,
improve the outcome for a person who just had a heart attack, and increase
pregnancy rates for infertile couples.
One study at Duke University found that people who attend regular religious
services tend to have better immune function. In another study of 232 older
adults undergoing heart surgery, those who were religious were three times less
likely to die within the six months after surgery than those who were not. Not
one of the 37 people in this study who described themselves as deeply religious
died. Of course, the studies are not comprehensive and many people find help in
spiritual resources for numerous conditions.
Can spirituality have a negative impact on health?
Some experts warn that religious beliefs can be harmful when they encourage
excessive guilt, fear, and lowered self-worth. Similarly, physicians should
avoid advocating for particular spiritual practices; this can be inappropriate,
intrusive, and induce a feeling of guilt or even harm if the implication is that
ill health is a result of insufficient faith. It is also important to note that
spirituality does not guarantee health. Finally, there is the risk that people
may substitute prayer for medical care or that spiritual practice could delay
the receipt of necessary medical treatment.
How can I receive spiritual counseling when I am in the hospital?
Many hospitals have access to counselors from organized religions. If you
would like spiritual counseling or someone to pray with, ask your doctor to
refer a counselor.
Where can I find more information on spirituality and health?
To learn more about spirituality's role in health (including the latest
research on this topic), call the National Institute for Healthcare Research at
301-984-7162, or visit their
website at www.nihr.org.
What is the future of spirituality in medical practice?
Thus far, more than 30 medical schools in the United States have included
spiritual teachings in their curricula. However, what role, if any, a doctor
should play in assisting or guiding patients in spiritual matters remains
controversial. In addition, given that there appears to be a growing belief in
the connection between spirituality and health, scientists in this field feel
that research should begin to focus on assessing the validity of this
connection, a better understanding of why there is this connection and how it
works. There is also interesting research emerging that evaluates the impact of
religion and spirituality (both the child's and the parents') on the health of
children and adolescents.
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