Recently, I’ve come across several articles about how frontline healthcare workers have been coping with the unrelenting stress and sadness of COVID-19. A common refrain from doctors, nurses and other hospital employees quoted in these articles is that their faith, prayer or place of worship have gotten them through.
They report that their beliefs comfort them, give them hope and help them recover mentally after grueling shifts.
This makes a lot of sense to me as a therapist. In recent years, we have become increasingly aware that spirituality and religion are linked to improved mental health. This does not mean you have to be a regular churchgoer, but practices like prayer and meditation as well as being part of a community with a common set of beliefs can have a significant impact on a person’s emotional wellbeing.
In my practice, I sometimes work with clients who are interested in incorporating these in their treatment and healing. Whether it be prayer, spiritual literature, meditation, appreciation of nature or recognition of some higher power like Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or Judaism, I encourage patients to assess their spiritual health and explore how their faith can help them feel better and move forward toward living their best life.
A growing body of research supports this approach, showing that spirituality encourages a broader, less self-focused perspective, which can be especially beneficial to easing negative thought patterns and learning gratitude and acceptance. A study in the Journal of Psychiatric Services surveyed patients at a mental health facility and found that more than “80% used religious beliefs or activities to cope with daily difficulties or frustrations; 65% reported that religion helped them cope with symptom severity and 30% indicated that religion gave them a purpose to keep living.” Meanwhile, a 14-year study out of Canada showed a 22% lower risk of depression, among those who regularly attended religious services. According to the 2017 National Health and Resilience in Veterans study, “U.S. military veterans who identified themselves as being highly religious or spiritual showed high levels of gratitude, purpose in life, and post-traumatic growth, and lower risk of depression, suicidal thinking, and alcohol abuse than their lesser or non-spiritual/religious peers.”
The Power of Spirituality
There are a number of reasons why actively practicing spirituality or worshipping in a religious community can have a positive impact on our mental health:
- Spirituality encourages a connection to a greater purpose than oneself. It distracts from day-to-day negativity. Instead, it promotes hope, a feeling that mental health practitioners consider integral to achieving successful outcomes in treatment.
2. Prayer and meditation rewire the brain. According to one study, individuals who prayed or meditated for 30 minutes a day, over eight weeks, experienced actual changes in their brains. Regions that control learning, emotions, memory and the fight or flight response even looked different on MRI imaging. We also know, meditation and prayer release “feel-good hormones” like serotonin and dopamine in the brain. The effects include better sleep, calmer emotions, increased ability to focus, reduced stress and better self-awareness as well as improved coping and resilience, according to the American Psychological Association.
3. Prayer and meditation support mindfulness. Mindfulness is a mental state made possible by focusing on one’s awareness of the present moment. It helps us become more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that, instead of being overwhelmed by them, we’re better able to manage them. Mindfulness practices are shown to reduce stress, anxiety and other common mental health conditions.
4. For those who regularly go to church or temple, the community can be a great source of connectedness and support, especially during difficult times. Frontline healthcare workers, for example, report that their congregations have been powerful support systems during COVID that help to keep them strong and motivated.
If your religion or spirituality is an important part of your life, it should not be excluded from your mental health journey. In fact, it often supports therapeutic treatment. So, if you are interested in learning how I can work with you to incorporate your faith, beliefs or practices in therapy, give me a call at (303) 542-0180.