Religion, Spirituality, and Health

Despite their intangibility, religious observance and feelings of spirituality are palpable to many. Followers of organized religion often report feeling a connectedness or belonging to something bigger than themselves. And spirituality, whether experienced through religious practice or quiet moments in nature, has been described as healing, therapeutic, and at times, invigorating.

It is difficult to quantify feelings, which is what makes measuring the serenity many religious people and spiritual people alike, subscribe to. Are their feelings of calm truly connected to religious worship? Are those who feel drawn to a Higher Power or purpose more relaxed and healthier than those who are not? Is there real science behind the positive effects of religion and spirituality on health? Perhaps it is all just mind over matter. Or maybe it is a combination of all of the above.

Defining Religion and Spirituality

Concisely defined, religion deals with external behaviors, practices, and conduct set forth by a particular religion or faith. On the other hand, spirituality concerns itself with meaning, motive, and experiential connectedness. For many individuals, being religious, or practicing religious precepts, brings them closer to their Higher Power and in turn, a deep sense of spirituality. Others are driven to finding their personal “why” in the environments in which they live, independent of organized practice. Religion and spirituality are separate entities, intertwined beliefs, and wholly separate, depending on who you ask.

Individuals who belong to a specific faith, religion, or feel a deep sense of spirituality share many common traits. While each person must define for themselves what “religion” and “spirituality” mean to them, those who devote sacred space and time to either, overwhelmingly report that doing so makes them a better person. And not someone who is superior to others, but instead, someone who is more emotionally evolved and equipped to deal with the stresses and strains of life in a positive way.

Religion and spirituality are said to contribute significantly to feelings of joy, hopefulness, optimism, gratitude, and overall well- being. The sense of connection to the world at large and the comfort of believing that things do not simply occur but in fact, happen for a reason, allows faithful believers to see the world in a context that is both safe and secure. From this vantage point, the world is guided, shielded, and makes at least a modicum of sense.

The Functions of Religion and Spirituality

Both spirituality and religious practice provide individuals with a community in which to connect, socialize, and bond. And while religious and spiritual communities are centered around specific types of worship and belief systems, they also provide a safe space in which to share experiences, life cycle events, and adaptive coping skills.

There is tremendous comfort enjoyed by individuals whose practice, habits, and life choices (abstaining from excessive alcohol or cigarettes, for example) are informed by a shared belief system. While religion and spirituality are meant, in many ways, to shape our beliefs in G-d, a Higher Power, or the Hereafter, they clearly connect us far beyond the ethereal.

How Religion and Spirituality Affect Physical and Mental Health

Research on the effects of religion and spirituality on health bear out some surprising correlations. According to research conducted at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, individuals who consistently attended religious services demonstrated superior immunological functioning to those who did not regularly attend services. These results remained steady to a large degree even when depression, physical ailments, and traumatic experiences were factored into the research.

In studies recorded by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and National Institutes of Health (NIH), spiritual beliefs in a Higher Power correlated to decreased levels of depression and increased feelings of hopefulness. In women diagnosed as HIV- positive, this decrease in depressive symptoms further correlated to increased or stable CD4 cell counts. In short, the less depressed these women felt, the less they experienced negative symptoms related to their HIV diagnoses.

Additional research comparing levels of hypertension in members of a Tibetan Buddhist community with those of non- practicing Tibetans, was rather dramatic. Despite the vegetarian diet followed by these coreligionists, it appeared that Buddhist practice more significantly affected blood pressure than diet alone.

Health Implications of Religion and Spirituality

Religious convictions, spirituality, and belief systems inform the decisions we make and the ways in which we conduct ourselves, both privately and publicly. Faith based practice seems to give tremendous comfort to those who are ill as well as those who enjoy good health. The fact that positive correlations exist between belief systems and improved health, speaks to the ways in which we ought to address mental, existential, and physical welfare worldwide. Pastoral care, such as that provided in hospitals and in hospice for example, is a safe and effective compliment to standard methods of care. This is not to say that religious beliefs should be foisted on patients, as that is unethical and could prove dangerous. That said, it is evident that religious tenets and a connection to whatever may or may not be beyond, is a critical and valuable part of healthcare.

Contact Dr. Shahen Kurestian, DC of Body Systems and Wellness in Glendale, California to discuss your health concerns and how to best care for mind, body, and soul.

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