Dr. David Koehn is a psychologist practicing in Fort Myers, FL. Dr. Koehn specializes in the treatment of mental health problems and helps people to cope with their mental illnesses. As a psychologist, Dr. Koehn evaluates and treats patients through a variety of methods, most typically being psychotherapy or talk therapy.... more
The Importance of Spirituality in Mental Health
Dr. David Koehn
Taken from several sources on the internet here is a treatise on spirituality. Spirituality and the mental health profession on the face of it, they do not seem to have much in common. That said, spiritual wellness is an important part of your overall wellness. We are becoming increasingly aware of ways in which some aspects of spirituality can offer real benefits for mental health.
There are many components to our overall health and well-being, including physical, mental and emotional. All health care tries to relieve pain and to cure - but good health care tries to do more. Spirituality emphasizes the healing of the person, not just the disease. It views life as a journey, where good and bad experiences can help you to learn, develop and mature.
One important aspect that can often be overlooked in mental health field is spiritual wellness. For example,” In Success that Last,” by Nash and Stevenson, they use the metaphor of a kaleidoscope to gain balance in life by analyzing four phases of expectations and multiple lens within each phase. The one missing link not discussed is spirituality. Adding this lens to Nash’s and Stevenson’s profound view gives a more robust potential perspective to developing a beautiful picture of life.
The general definition of spiritual wellness is the search for your life’s meaning and purpose, as well as striving for consistency in your values and your actions. A spiritually healthy person has a clear purpose in life and is able to reflect on the meaning of events. They also have clearly defined ideas of right and wrong and are able to act accordingly. Some people follow specific religious practices, while others may pursue a general sense of harmony and self-awareness.
The National Wellness Institute says spiritual wellness follows these tenets:
- It’s better to ponder the meaning of life for ourselves and to be tolerant of the beliefs of others than to close our minds and become intolerant.
- It’s better to live each day in a way that’s consistent with our values and beliefs than to do otherwise and feel untrue to ourselves.
To determine your spiritual well-being, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I make time for relaxation in my day?
- Do I make time for meditation and/or prayer?
- Do my values guide my decisions and actions?
- Do I have a well-defined sense of purpose and meaning?
- Do I feel in harmony with the world around me?
- Am I accepting of the views of others?
Those with good spiritual health typically display hope, a positive outlook, forgiveness/self-acceptance, commitment, meaning and purpose, a sense of self-worth, clear values, and feelings of peace. People who may need to reevaluate their spiritual health generally experience feelings of emptiness, anxiety, loss of meaning, self-judgment, apathy and conflicting values. They often think they need to improve themselves.
Because everyone’s path to spiritual wellness may be different, it’s important for everyone to explore what they believe and their own sense of meaning and purpose. Some see benefit in meditation, prayer, affirmations, or specific spiritual practices that support their connection to a higher power or belief system. Others enjoy practicing yoga and meditation.
Some of the benefits of spiritual wellness include having compassion, the capacity for love and forgiveness, altruism, joy, and fulfillment. Your religious faith, values, beliefs, principles and morals define your spirituality and can help you enjoy your spiritual health.
If you’re a person engaged in the process of spiritual wellness, you’re willing and able to transcend yourself to question the meaning and purpose in your life and the lives of others. In addition, you seek to find harmony between what lies within and the social and physical forces that come from outside.
Many of the activities associated with wellness are key components of a healthy spiritual life. Examples include volunteerism, social responsibility, optimism, contributing to society, connectedness with others, feeling of belonging/being part of a group, and love of self/reason to care for self.
To invest in your spiritual wellness, it’s important to enjoy the little pleasures in life. You can do that by first setting aside some time for daily relaxation: take regular nature walks, sign up for yoga classes or simply find a quiet corner to meditate. You can also visit a museum or treat yourself to a new play or musical.
Here are the top five positive characteristics of spiritual people. Spiritual people are gracious, optimistic, compassionate, and self-actualized.
Spiritual people are gracious. Psychology has demonstrated that expressing gratitude is associated with many positive emotions such as optimism, being generous with time and resources, and overall vitality. Spirituality encourages people to be positive, which may be expressed in many of these life practices.
Spiritual people are compassionate. Experiencing compassion toward others is one of the strongest correlates with living a spiritual life. A variety of positive or pro-social emotions have strong links to spiritualism, including allowing one to feel good about the little things in life and look at the world through empathetic eyes.
Spiritual people flourish. Spirituality is linked to many important aspects of human functioning—spiritual people have positive relationships, high self-esteem, are optimistic, and have meaning and purpose in life.
Spiritual people self-actualize. Spiritual individuals strive toward a better life and consider personal growth and fulfillment a central goal. Spirituality can be considered to be a path toward self-actualization, because it requires people to focus on their internal values and work on becoming a better individual.
Spiritual people take time to savor life experiences. Individuals who value spirituality take the time to reflect on their daily activities and ultimately build lasting memories of their experiences. Because spiritual people are more conscious of small, daily activities, they experience positive emotions associated with the smaller pleasures in life.
As we age, it’s easy to feel socially isolated as lifelong friends or your spouse passes on. It’s during these times people often question their life and reason for being. That’s when having a spiritual community – church support group, grief group, etc. – can become an important support system. The right group can relate to what you’re going through and help you better understand how you’re feeling and what next steps you should take. Your spiritual community can also help you stay involved, active and assist you in rediscovering your purpose.
There is a growing body of evidence indicating that spiritual practices are associated with better health and well-being for many reasons, including:
Contemplative practices. These are activities that guide you to direct your attention to a specific focus—often an inward-looking reflection or concentration on a specific sensation or concept. Many spiritual traditions have a long history of using contemplative practices to increase compassion, empathy, and attention, as well as quiet the mind.
- Meditation can induce feelings of calm and clear-headedness as well as improve concentration and attention. Brain researcher Richard Davidson’s research shows that meditation increases the brain’s gray matter density, which can reduce sensitivity to pain, enhance your immune system, help you regulate difficult emotions, and relieve stress. Mindfulness meditation in particular has been proven helpful for people with depression and anxiety, cancer, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.
- Prayer may elicit the relaxation response, along with feelings of hope, gratitude, and compassion—all of which have a positive effect on overall wellbeing. There are several types of prayer, many of which are rooted in the belief that there is a higher power that has some level of influence over your life. This belief can provide a sense of comfort and support in difficult times—a recent study found that clinically depressed adults who believed their prayers were heard by a concerned presence responded much better to treatment than those who did not believe.
- Yoga is a centuries-old spiritual practice that aims to create a sense of union within the practitioner through physical postures, ethical behaviors, and breathe expansion. The systematic practice of yoga has been found to reduce inflammation and stress, decrease depression and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and increase feelings of wellbeing.
- Journaling. Journaling is another, often overlooked, contemplative practice that can help you become more aware of your inner life and feel more connected to your experience and feel more connected to your experience and the world around you. Studies show that writing during difficult times may help you find meaning in life’s challenges and become more resilient in the face of obstacles.
- A spiritual community can improve your life. Many spiritual traditions encourage participation in a community. Spiritual fellowship, such as attending church or a meditation group, can be sources of social support which may provide a sense of belonging, security, and community. Strong relationships have been proven to increase wellbeing and bolster life expectancy, which is perhaps why one study found a strong association between church attendance and improved health, mood, and wellbeing.
- Spiritual strength can help you overcome hardships. Dr. Steven Southwick’s book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, describes how some people overcome trauma—such as abduction, war, and imprisonment—by seeking comfort in spirituality or religion. He gives examples where spiritual people find ways to “meet the challenge and continue with purposeful lives…they bounce back and carry on.”
- Having a strong spiritual outlook may help you find meaning in life’s difficult circumstances. Southwick describes the story of a woman who overcame the post-traumatic stress following an abduction and rape by believing that her trauma “served as a platform for her personal development, forcing her to evaluate her life and gradually change it for the better. She credits her ability to move forward with her life…to her dedication to spirituality.”
- The spiritual practice of recognizing the interconnectedness of all life can also help buffer the pain that comes with difficult experiences. Researcher Kristin Neff says that “if we can compassionately remind ourselves in moments of falling down that failure is part of the shared human experience, then that moment becomes one of togetherness rather than isolation. When our troubled, painful experiences are framed by the recognition that countless others have undergone similar hardships, the blow is softened.”
- Spiritual people make healthier choices. Adhering to a particular spiritual tradition may bring an indirect health benefit because many traditions have rules about treating the body with kindness and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. Research shows that perhaps because of these tenets, people who practice a religion or faith tradition are less likely to smoke or drink, commit a crime, or become involved in violent activity, and they are more likely to engage in preventative habits like wearing seatbelts and taking vitamins.
- Spirituality may help you live longer. Spirituality may help you live longer. An exhaustive review that compared spirituality and religiousness to other health interventions found that people with a strong spiritual life had an 18% reduction in mortality. Giancarlo Lucchetti, the lead author of the study, calculates that the life-lengthening benefits of spirituality can be compared to eating a high amount of fruits and vegetables or taking blood pressure medication. Although some researchers have suggested that the extent of spirituality’s benefit on health is exaggerated, most researchers agree there is a positive relationship between religious and spiritual practices and better health outcomes.
- Spirituality may help you live longer. An exhaustive review that compared spirituality and religiousness to other health interventions found that people with a strong spiritual life had an 18% reduction in mortality. Giancarlo Lucchetti, the lead author of the study, calculates that the life-lengthening benefits of spirituality can be compared to eating a high amount of fruits and vegetables or taking blood pressure medication. Although some researchers have suggested that the extent of spirituality’s benefit on health is exaggerated, most researchers agree there is a positive relationship between religious and spiritual practices and better health outcomes.
- Spirituality decreases mortality. An exhaustive review that compared spirituality and religiousness to other health interventions found that people with a strong spiritual life had an 18% reduction in mortality. Giancarlo Lucchetti, the lead author of the study, calculates that the life-lengthening benefits of spirituality can be compared to eating a high amount of fruits and vegetables or taking blood pressure medication. Although some researchers have suggested that the extent of spirituality’s benefit on health is exaggerated, most researchers agree there is a positive relationship between religious and spiritual practices and better health outcomes.
- Forgiveness is good medicine. Letting go of blame and negative feelings after a hurtful incident is a practice that is reflected by a number of spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism. Modern science shows the health benefits of forgiveness are numerous: better immune function, longer lifespan, lowered blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, and fewer feelings of anger or hurt.
Religion and Spirituality
Spirituality and religion can play an important role in your life. Spirituality and religion are linked. But spirituality can be more general and include many other things. It can mean different things to different people. Or you can follow a common spiritual belief. You can be spiritual without being religious. Thus, they are not the same. Health professionals should be aware of the role that spirituality and religion can play in mental health.
Spirituality and religion may be helpful to manage your condition. You may find it gives you hope and support. Your health professionals could include spirituality and religion in your support. Ask your MH provider to include it in your care plan if would like to. You can write an advanced statement to let health professions know about your religious or spiritual needs. Professionals should look at your advanced statement if you lack mental capacity to make your own decisions about your care and treatment in the future.
Religious traditions certainly include individual spirituality, which is universal. But each religion has its own distinct community-based worship, beliefs, sacred texts and traditions. Spirituality is not necessarily tied to any particular religious belief or tradition. Although culture and beliefs can play a part in spirituality, every person has their own unique experience of spirituality. It can be a personal experience for anyone, with or without a religious belief. It's there for everyone. Spirituality also highlights how connected we are to other people and the world.
People with mental health problems have said that they want to: feel safe and secure; be treated with dignity and respect; feel that they belong, are valued and trusted; have time to express feelings about their mental health concerns; engage in meaningful activities such as creative art, work or enjoying nature; have the chance to make sense of their life including illness and loss; and develop their relationship with God or the Absolute.
Someone with a religious belief may need: a time, a place and privacy in which to pray and worship; the chance to explore spiritual concerns; to be reassured that the mental health professional will respect their faith; encouragement to deepen their faith; sometimes – to be helped with forgiveness.
Religion and spirituality can help you to develop inner strength, peace, hope and optimism. Spirituality and religion can be helpful to manage stressful life events and improve your mental health. There are a few ways that spirituality and religion may help your mental health:
- If you are part of a spiritual or religious community you may have more support and friendship.
- You may find it helpful to feel connected to something bigger than yourself.
- It may help you to make sense of your experiences.
- You may feel strength or hope from your spirituality or religion. This may be more important to you when you are unwell.
- You may feel more at peace with yourself and other people around you.
Although some religious and spiritual beliefs may be empowering, some beliefs may be unhelpful. They may lead you to feel guilty or in need of forgiveness. This may have a bad effect on your mental health. Some religious groups may believe you are possessed by demons or spirits if you have a mental illness. Others may say that mental illness is a punishment for something you have done wrong. These beliefs are unhelpful and might stop you from getting professional help when you need it.
Certain groups may suggest different things to help you such as exorcisms, herbal remedies or witchcraft. They may be more harmful than helpful. As in all areas of society, there are people in spiritual or religious groups who may take advantage of vulnerable people. You may feel more vulnerable in times of difficulty and emotional distress. You may be more willing to listen to people who want to make you believe their views.
Extreme religious groups may look for vulnerable people to believe in the values of their group. Extremists are people who have very strong beliefs about politics or religion which are: hateful, dangerous, not shared by most people, or against the law.
They may try to get you to believe and follow their extreme views and practices. This is known as ‘radicalization.’ People with mental health issues are more vulnerable to extremism.
MH Treatment Practices
When spirituality is addressed, patients say that they gained: better self-control, self-esteem and confidence; faster and easier recovery (often through healthy grieving of losses and through recognizing their strengths); better relationships – with self, others and with God/creation/nature; and a new sense of meaning, hope and peace of mind. This has enabled them to accept and live with continuing problems or to make changes where possible.
Spirituality should be considered as part of every mental health assessment. Depression or substance misuse, for example, can sometimes reflect a spiritual void in a person's life. Mental health professionals need to be able to distinguish between a spiritual crisis and a mental illness, particularly when these overlap. A helpful way to begin is to be asked "Would you say you are spiritual or religious in any way? Please tell me how." Another useful question is, "What gives you hope?" or "What keeps you going in difficult times?" The answer to this will usually reveal a person's main spiritual concerns and practices. Over recent years there has been increasing interest in treatments that include the spiritual dimension.
In addition to established 12-step programs for alcohol and substance misuse, new approaches such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for the treatment of stress, anxiety and depression (MBCT), compassion-focused therapy and forgiveness therapy are now being actively researched and supported. Spiritual practices can help us to develop the better parts of ourselves. They can help us to become more creative, patient, persistent, honest, kind, compassionate, wise, calm, hopeful and joyful. These are all part of the best health care. Spiritual skills include:
- Being honest – and able to see yourself as others see you
- Being able to stay focused in the present, to be alert, unhurried and attentive
- Being able to rest, relax and create a still, peaceful state of mind
- Developing a deeper sense of empathy for others
- Finding the capacity for forgiveness
- Being able to be with someone who is suffering, while still being hopeful
- Learning better judgment, for example about when to speak or act, and when to remain silent or do nothing
- Learning how to give without feeling drained
- Being able to grieve and let go.
Spirituality emphasizes our connections to other people and the world, which creates the idea of ‘reciprocity’. This means that the giver and receiver both get something from what happens, that if you help another person, you help yourself. Many mental health professionals naturally develop spiritual skills and values over time as a result of their commitment to those for whom they care. Those being cared for, in turn, can often give help to others in distress.
Over half of people who use mental health services find religion or spirituality helpful to manage their mental health issues. But often they find it difficult to speak about with their health care professionals. If you want to begin thinking or talking about your religious or spiritual needs, you could think about the following questions:
- What keeps you going in times of difficulty?
- What do you want your life to be about?
- What is important to you?
- Has something happened to you which has changed your point of view?
- Do you have a feeling of belonging and being valued?
- Do you feel safe?
- Are you being listened to as you would wish?
- What makes you feel supported?
- What makes you feel happy?
Talking about how you feel you fit into the world and your personal values may be useful for your mental health recovery. It may help you figure out your feelings, beliefs and attitude towards religion and spirituality. But asking yourself ‘big questions’ may make you feel worse. Think carefully about who you talk to about your views and beliefs. You should talk to someone who you trust and who respects you. This could be a friend or a mental health professional.
Your health professionals should be aware of the positive impact that spirituality and religion can have on your recovery. Your recovery should be based around things that are important to you and things you believe in. This is called a ‘meaning centered approach.’ For example if you hear voices, your health professionals should ask about the following kinds of things:
- How the voices are affecting your life?
- What you are doing to make sense of them?
- How you are coping with them?
Your mental health professional should record what the voices mean for you personally as part of your assessment. They shouldn’t record the symptom on its own. Talking about your personal beliefs and values with professionals can help them to understand you better. This can have an impact on your treatment plan. Hopefully you found this treatise something to contemplate as part of your mental well-being.