Most people use the terms “religion” and “spirituality” interchangeably, as they both hold the promise of comfort and peace in an uncertain world. But although the two concepts may be perceived as similar, they are quite different in reality. The notion of spirituality is quite diverse, but its many iterations all hold to a belief in something bigger than ourselves.
Spirituality strives to understand a human’s connection to the world and each other. Religion tends to be more structured and organized, with guidelines representing community members’ beliefs and worldviews. Since both spirituality and religion can inspire peace, comfort, and strength, people often fall back on their spiritual or religious beliefs to endure challenging situations. Holding to a belief system is a significant factor in improving one’s mental health and well-being.
The Importance of Spirituality in Mental Health
Spiritual practices have their roots in diverse religious traditions, and mental health therapies often retain aspects of these spiritual disciplines. Cynics may not see the connection between spirituality and mental well-being, but many spiritual disciplines can – and do – improve mental health for millions of believers. These practices may include:
- Meditation, prayers, or deep reflection
- Symbolic and meaningful rituals
- Creative pursuits such as cooking, painting, or gardening
- Tai Chi, yoga, and other forms of controlled and disciplined exercise
Spirituality is intensely personal and does not look the same for everyone. Those desiring spiritual healing from mental health issues may also need:
- A time and place to worship and pray
- An opportunity to forgive and ask forgiveness
- Opportunity to practice and grow in their unique faith
- Freedom to explore spiritual concerns
- Reassurance that the mental health professional they decide on will respect their beliefs
Benefits of Pursuing a Spiritual Life
Sadly, religion and spirituality are often used as a superficial bandaid and can make people feel worse. When someone genuinely seeks a solution to a profound life issue, being dismissed with sentiments like “You just need to have more faith” can be harmful. Still, faith and spirituality are powerful when combined with compassion, openness, and positivity.
Some of the benefits of seeking a spiritual life include the following:
- Develops a sense of community: Individuals often create a community with people with similar spiritual or religious belief systems. Being a member of organized religion can provide needed support, social interaction, and trustworthy relationships that can significantly reinforce individual mental health.
- Strengthens self-esteem: Spirituality helps people to improve their self-esteem, confidence, and self-control. It provides feelings of self-empowerment, strengthening their belief system while accepting other people regardless of their individual religious and spiritual beliefs.
- Inspires mindfulness: Spirituality is associated with meditation and self-reflection, healthy practices that positively impact an individual’s mental state. Those who participate in these practices feel more connected to others and pursue meaning in their lives.
- Establishes unity with their environment: Spiritual individuals are often very aware of their physical surroundings and tend to have a deep appreciation for that environment. Spiritual and religious teachings emphasize being mindful of personal actions and doing the right thing. They teach forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude – all of which help people weather difficult seasons of life.
- Calms the mind: Spirituality can significantly influence the creation of calm and serenity as well as reduce stress and anxiety. Religious rituals or practices establish structure, predictability, and consistency – solid ground for people undergoing uncertain circumstances.
Research shows that people living life with the support of a community have better mental health. Spirituality and religion provide this structure when like-minded people gather and can help people to find meaning in their lives. However, even when alone, pursuing spirituality can relax the body and mind, bring peace and acceptance, and allow us to find balance and purpose in our lives.
Denise Schonwald is a nationally licensed mental health counselor who believes strongly in the power of integrating spirituality to heal our psychological and physical concerns and issues. Call today to learn more about her compassionate and unique approach to those living with trauma, guilt, anxiety, or depression.