What Role Does Spirituality Play in Mental Health?

Man sitting under The Milky Way Galaxy

 

Spirituality in general is a broad concept that includes a sense of connection to something larger than our self.  Spirituality typically involves some sort of search for meaning, and is often linked to religion, although it can also be linked to finding meaning through nature or art.  Everyone’s definition of spirituality can vary slightly, and will most likely change throughout your life depending on your experiences and relationships.

Spirituality is often closely linked with emotional health, but how does it affect our mental health overall?  In an article with the American Psychological Association, Kenneth I. Pargament, PhD, an expert in the psychology of religion and spirituality, discussed how spirituality can play a role in our overall health.

It is very common to hear of people going through a challenging time relying on religion or spirituality to help them cope with that event.  There have been studies of many types of people coping with various serious life events, including natural disaster, illness, loss of loved ones, divorce, and mental illness; these studies showed that religion and spirituality were helpful in the coping process, especially to those that had fewer resources, and with uncontrollable problems.  Pargament states, “Positive religious coping methods include spiritual support from God or a higher power, rituals to facilitate life transitions, spiritual forgiveness, support from a religious institution or clergy and reframing a stressful situation into a larger, more benevolent system of meaning.”

While religion and spirituality are often credited with helping people cope with life and the stress and sorrow that can come with it, there can be some negative consequences as well.  Certain life events and experiences can cause people to struggle spiritually, and question their understanding of their god, religion, or spiritual self.  Research has connected spiritual struggles to higher levels of psychological distress, as well as declines in physical health and greater risk of mortality.  Pargament says that it is important for psychologists and health care providers to “be aware of the dual nature of religion and spirituality; they can be vital resources for health and well-being, but they can also be sources of distress.”

While psychologists had previously steered clear of mixing religion and spirituality with clinical practice, that trend is declining recently.  Part of this is due to religion and spirituality being key resources for growth for many patients; conversely religion and spirituality can also be a source of problems that need to be addressed for some patients.  Either way, some psychologists are now mixing spirituality into their treatments of patients.