Is there a correlation between spirituality and health? Religious leaders have long claimed that prayer and other spiritual practices can help improve your overall well-being. The study of medicine doesn't typically involve exploration into the topic of spirituality at all, but that doesn't mean you should avoid bringing them together if you're so inclined. Even if there's no strong research linking the two, you might find spiritual practice -- even if you're not religious -- to be a positive influence on your state of mind.
Spirituality is an individually determined practice that represents the thought patterns you employ to determine your personal values, what you consider sacred, and how you find hope, meaning, and inner peace. For many, spirituality also includes a relationship with a higher power. Of course, religion is one of the means through which people might practice spirituality, but it is not uncommon today for people to be spiritual without the guidance of an organized religion.
One of the benefits of practicing spirituality in an organized religion is the aspect of community. A sense of belonging can help counter feelings of loneliness, and religious communities often actively help meet their members' needs (e.g., providing support when someone experiences an injury or illness). Many people feel that collectively practicing spiritual rituals such as prayer or singing amplifies the experience. Some people, though, prefer the freedom to explore spirituality on their own terms and determine their own beliefs rather than adhering to views prescribed by an organized religion.
Spiritual Practices and Stress
The health consequences of prolonged stress are well documented; complicating this issue is the fact that a difficult diagnosis, such as cancer, is stress-inducing in itself. Many spiritual rituals and practices can serve as coping strategies for dealing with stress by helping to deactivate the classic fight-or-flight stress response that can accompany persistent stress, and in turn, reduce the amount of stress hormones pumped into your system.
Communal singing, prayer and meditation, and acts of community service are just a small sample of spiritually derived activities that can help reduce stress during a tough time. Some people even practice spirituality by spending time in nature or enjoying music and art.
The Right Activity for You
There's always yoga, but many activities can be considered spiritual even if you've never thought of them that way before. Any mindful practices can become meditative if you get caught up in the flow of the action. Whether it's sewing or gardening, focus on the moment and your movements, and be fully present in your activity. Anything -- hiking, reading, and much more -- can help you achieve an inner calm.
Keeping a gratitude journal can also be profoundly rewarding, as can simply recording your thoughts and questions. Don't keep thoughts about life and your worries bottled up. By talking or writing about these issues, you'll release them and feel a weight lift off your shoulders.
You might also consider investigating spirituality in the community: Ask questions, listen to a teaching from different spiritual leaders, and gauge the opinions of friends and acquaintances you admire. There are a growing number of mindfulness meditation groups all over the U.S., where you can learn to meditate and be part of a mindfulness-focused community.
There's no hard research on how spirituality impacts your health, but that's largely because spirituality works differently for everyone. Each of us is on our own unique journey. Knowing how to face our difficulties helps put us in a better frame of mind, and a regular spiritual practice (whatever that looks like for you) can offer a calmer, more peaceful life and a greater sense of well-being.