Life is marked by ups and downs, highs and lows, joy and pain. We often look within ourselves or seek external outlets to soothe the many negative emotions and thoughts that flood our mind during challenging situations. However, there is growing evidence that spirituality may have a beneficial effect on our mental health during difficult times.
Some may think spirituality and religion are the same thing. However, they are two different concepts that may or may not overlap.
Religion is based on a system of beliefs, practices and rituals to worship a supernatural being. Spirituality tends to focus more on a person’s quest to understand life’s meaning and purpose, as well as their connection to other beings, nature and something bigger than themselves.
“One can practice spirituality without being religious,” says Paul Mugane, chaplain at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Indeed, many people now prefer the designation of spiritual or nondenominational instead of identifying with a religious tradition or denomination. Someone can be spiritual but not religious, while another can be both.”
What is spirituality?
Spirituality is simply a connection to the “ultimate” that is larger and immeasurable in your life. The “ultimate” can go by many names, some religious and others not. These include God, Allah, The Name, reason, philosophy, science and nature, among others.
“One’s spirituality can find expression in religious beliefs and practice in isolation or as part of a community, such as a church, synagogue, mosque or temple,” says Mugane. “While another’s spirituality is attended to by a week spent hiking or camping, immersed in nature’s beauty and solitude, or diving into a scientific manual about the cosmos.”
Benefits of spirituality
According to Mugane, along with giving your life meaning and purpose, spirituality can also sustain hope in the face of overwhelming odds. “Spirituality can furnish reasons for the way life is unfolding, which can then enable the individual to endure any hardship,” he says.
For some, spirituality even provides meaning to a brief and often challenging life, Mugane says. And it is important in how one understands and accepts oneself and others, leading to healthy and nurturing communities. Spirituality can also be helpful in evaluating one’s life and guiding them into acceptance of their situations and experiences. This yields a sense of peace and calm, even in dire circumstances.
“Spirituality plays a significant role in decisions of what to let go, whether injuries are done to oneself or to another; bypassing the destructive effects of anger and resentment; and realizing the wisdom of letting go of matters one has no control over, thus, avoiding unnecessary worries and anxieties,” says Mugane. “The practice of spirituality makes and holds room for compassion for self, others and the world.”
Science of spirituality
Additionally, Mugane remarks, a handful of studies have noted how spirituality can benefit mental health. These studies show how practicing spirituality can help people develop qualities — a sense of inner strength, comfort, peace and hope — that may improve their coping mechanisms during stressful times. It can also help reduce anxiety and depression; better endure feelings of anger and guilt; and provide peace of mind for other emotional distress.
One study looked at the relationship between spirituality and positive mental health traits and found that the levels of personal spirituality and positive psychology traits coincided in up to 83% of participants, suggesting they go hand in hand. Together, it was found, they can lead to lower levels of depression and protect against substance use.
“There is evidence that individuals with high levels of spirituality tend to have better mental health and quality of life,” says Mugane. “Over time, through their practice, they develop ways that help them better cope with adversities.”
Spirituality’s role in emotional health
So how does spirituality promote positive mental health? “Spirituality tends to involve practices and behaviors that may improve emotional well-being,” says Mary Heineke, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.
For instance, spirituality may:
- Promote positive health-related behaviors, such as meditation, physical activity and altruism
- Reduce illness-related behaviors, such as smoking and drinking alcohol
- Enhance a person’s sense of self and personal growth
- Instill appreciation and awareness of one’s interaction with their environment and other people
- Provide access to a network of social support to sustain emotional and psychological well-being
While there are different ways to keep your mind healthy during life’s difficult times, as well as various resources to help you, what matters most is finding what works best for you. Whether you turn to professional help, spirituality, religion, loved ones or community groups, the goal is to promote your emotional well-being.