A hospital chaplain, pastor, and behavioral health specialist discusses the connection between religion/spirituality and mental health.
In today’s fast-paced world, where your smartphone knows your thoughts before you do, finding solace in religion or spirituality can be a bit like finding a Wi-Fi signal in the middle of a desert – surprisingly comforting! October 10 is World Mental Health Day. It’s a great time to highlight the interconnectedness of body, mind, and spirit, and the psychological comfort religion provides.
Are Psychology and Psychiatry Opposed to Religion?
Many believe that psychology and psychiatry are opposed to religion and spirituality. In my practice, I’ve found it true that while religion can be healthy, it often attracts those who are mentally unstable. Often, delusions can mask themselves as a religious experience. (Click to read “The Difference Between Mental Illness and Demonic Possession.”) Yet, religion and spirituality have also been proven to be beneficial for mental health. In this article, I’ll discuss the positive aspects of religion, and how they promote the mind/body/spirit connection.
Providing a Sense of Belonging and Community
One of the most significant ways in which religion and spirituality can benefit mental health is by providing a sense of belonging and community. Places of worship such as churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, often serve as gathering points for individuals who share similar beliefs. These communities offer emotional support, friendship, and a sense of belonging that can help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are known contributors to mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
When I was a pastor, clearly one of my tasks was to attract people to my church (the congregation I served). Later, after I switched to social services, a client made me nervous when she asked me to help her find a church. Certainly, it wasn’t my job to impress my beliefs upon my clients. Yet, my agency clarified that I was free to support whatever my clients’ goals were. So, if their goal was to find a church, I could support that—if I would also support their goal of finding a mosque, temple, or synagogue.
Since religion in general supports mental health overall, I thought this was a great idea. I asked my client what type of congregation she was looking for and helped her locate one that met her needs. As she began to engage with her local church, I noticed her stress level decrease and her sense of belonging and community increase.
Offering a Framework for Coping with Stress
Life can be challenging, and stress is an inevitable part of it. Religion and spirituality often offer a framework for coping with stress, providing individuals with rituals, prayers, and meditative practices that help them find solace and inner peace. Prayer and meditation can be like hitting the reset button on your brain. Even the Dalai Lama needs to ‘Ctrl+Alt+Delete’ his thoughts and feelings. Engaging in these practices can reduce the physiological effects of stress and promote relaxation, leading to improved mental well-being.
I’m always looking for tools that help my clients find inner peace. I often give out prayer/meditation beads that correspond to my clients’ religious or spiritual identities and practices. I’ve given out Buddhist mala beads, Muslim tasbih beads, Roman Catholic rosaries, and Protestant prayer beads. These are marvelous tools to help people feel more grounded, peaceful, and focused. I tell them, “I’m not a clinician, so I can’t prescribe medication. But I can prescribe meditation.”
Another tool I have recently discovered is Radiant Foundation’s amazing Skylight app. It’s full of wonderful video and audio selections offering prayers, affirmations, soundtracks, and other assets for wellness. Skylight became the subject of a recent study that proved the psychological benefits of spirituality-related apps. The study indicated that “Spiritual self-care apps like Skylight may be useful in addressing anxiety among GenZennials and be a resource to spiritually connect to their personal spiritual well-being.” I will recommend Skylight to my clients who live with depression, anxiety, loneliness, sleep, stress, and self-esteem issues.
Enhanced Psychological Well-Being
Research has shown that individuals with a strong sense of religious or spiritual belief tend to experience higher levels of psychological well-being. They often report greater life satisfaction, happiness, and lower rates of depression and anxiety. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that individuals with strong religious or spiritual beliefs are less likely to experience major depressive episodes. This enhanced psychological well-being can be attributed to the various ways in which faith and spirituality positively influence mental health.
The Skylight blog reports, “According to a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, religiosity, spirituality and frequency of prayer have been tied to lower cortisol levels. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” can wreak havoc on our bodies when it’s chronically elevated. But spiritual engagement appears to help us keep this hormone at bay.” If a hymn, meditation, prayer, or spiritual exercise can lower cortisol and increase a person’s sense of well-being, I’d be glad to hear that my clients had such practices.
Offering a Sense of Purpose
Many of the people I work with suffer from a lack of purpose. Careers, homes, relationships, and other stabilizing factors often give people a sense of purpose. Losing these things can destabilize even the steadiest of individuals. Yet, people can maintain their sense of purpose when they focus on things that are eternal.
Gaining your sense of purpose from eternal things is like storing treasure in heaven. Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It seems he understood the benefits of a sense of purpose as well.
Belief in an Afterlife
In times of loss, believers often find comfort in the idea that their loved ones have moved on to a better place or that there is a greater purpose behind their suffering. They can look forward to seeing loved ones again in heaven. Those who believe in reincarnation or resurrection can take comfort in the idea that from death comes new life. This perspective can help individuals process grief in a healthy way, preventing prolonged emotional suffering and depression. It promotes resilience and recovery from grief.
As stated above, membership in a congregation of faith offers a sense of community during difficult times. Rituals surrounding death may include care for the dying person, last rites, wakes, memorial services, funerals, scattering of ashes, and other observances. All these contribute to emotional well-being so that we do not “grieve like people who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NLT).”
Encouraging Moral and Ethical Values
Often, my clients want to talk about their difficult situations, wondering what is the “right thing to do” in a given situation. Many religions and spiritual belief systems emphasize moral and ethical values such as kindness, honesty, and generosity. These values not only contribute to a more harmonious society but also provide individuals with a sense of moral clarity and integrity. I often find that people with religious or spiritual belief systems have an easier time making the right decision. Acting in accordance with these values can boost self-esteem and mental well-being.
Facilitating Forgiveness and Healing
It’s been said that forgiving someone can be tough, but it’s also like hitting them with a compassion boomerang. You throw it out there, and it comes back to you! I know many people who find themselves hogtied by unforgiveness. They believe they are getting back at the person who harmed them by withholding forgiveness when really, they are just hurting themselves.
Religion and spirituality often encourage forgiveness, both of oneself and others. Letting go of grudges and practicing forgiveness can have a profound impact on mental health. The Harvard Health Blog reports that acts of forgiveness, which are often encouraged by religious and spiritual teachings, are associated with lower levels of anger, anxiety, and depression. Practicing forgiveness and compassion towards self and others can lead to emotional healing and improved overall well-being.
Offering a Sense of Control
Religion often provides individuals with a sense of control over their lives, even in situations where they might otherwise feel powerless. The ability to pray for a situation that is beyond a person’s control gives them the sense that they are doing something beneficial rather than remaining idle. This perceived control can contribute to lower levels of stress and anxiety. Believing that one’s actions are guided by a higher purpose can instill a sense of agency and confidence in facing life’s challenges.
On the flip side, spirituality and religion can include an aspect of giving up control to God. The Serenity Prayer is a favorite of many of my clients living with addiction: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” When a person can recognize the limits of their own ability to change a situation, they can come to peace with it. This “letting go and letting God” is itself a sense of control because it is a decision to allow.
Encouraging Positive Lifestyle Choices
Many religious teachings advocate for healthy living, emphasizing the importance of practices like regular exercise, proper nutrition, and abstaining from harmful substances. These guidelines not only benefit physical health but also play a crucial role in maintaining mental well-being. Without espousing a particular belief system, the Skylight app encourages the kind of body, mind, and spirit balance that most religions would support.
Fostering a Sense of Wonder
I love the scene in Joe Versus the Volcano where Tom Hanks’ character stands facing an impossibly large moonrise. Utterly exhausted yet captivated by the scene he stands with arms outstretched. His quavering voice reflects absolute awe at the immensity not just of the moon but of the universe. “Dear God, whose name I do not know,” he begins. “Thank you for my life. I forgot how big…” Before he passes out, he whispers again, “Thank you. Thank you for my life.”
Sometimes we just forget how big God is. Religion and spirituality help us recapture a sense of wonder. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 53% of adults who say they feel a sense of wonder about the universe at least once a week are more satisfied with their lives, compared to 19% who do not feel this sense of wonder. Studies prove that this sense of wonder can drastically improve a person’s quality of life—not to mention studies that suggest that people of faith live longer.
Can Religion and Spirituality Benefit Mental Health?
While there can be a negative impact that unhealthy religion has on mental health, studies show the profound benefits of healthy spiritual practices. They can provide a sense of belonging and community and provide coping mechanisms for stress. Positive spirituality enhances psychological well-being and promotes a sense of purpose. Belief in the afterlife offers comfort and hope while promoting resilience and grief recovery. Religion encourages moral and ethical values and facilitates forgiveness and healing. It offers a sense of control, encourages positive lifestyle choices, and fosters a sense of wonder. Regardless of specific belief systems, religion and spirituality benefit mental health and promote a body, mind, and spirit connection.