Self Care School which kicks off on March 15, 2020 includes a module on the science of spirituality.
One of the modules covers the science of spirituality. Science you might say? In much of medicine, there is a long-standing split between science and spirituality. Sigmund Freud, the eminent Austrian scientist, neurologist, and founder of psychoanalysis, described belief in God as delusional and religion as ' universal obsessional neurosis. Although Freud wrote about 'the oceanic feeling,' the unspeakable wholeness, limitlessness, and awe when one becomes aware of a connection to something greater than oneself, he admitted to having never experiencing this feeling personally.
In contrast, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung acknowledged the spiritual connection as the central core of the human experience. He believed that life had a spiritual purpose beyond material goals, which entails discovering and fulfilling our deep innate potential. Jung believed that we are born whole and lose the sense of wholeness as we go through life. Connecting to this unity and our own transcendent nature was, for Jung, the way of restoring our inherent wholeness.
Albert Einstein may have best reconciled Freud and Jung's opposing viewpoints when he wrote, 'Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.' Science is always searching for that which is objectively measurable, quantifiable, testable, and repeatable. In contrast, spirituality by definition, is transcendent, subjective, and therefore difficult to measure and reproduce. It is not surprising therefore, that spirituality means different things to different people. British professor of religion and theology Christopher Cook offers a nice comprehensive definition:
Spirituality is a distinctive, potentially creative and universal dimension of human experience arising both within the inner subjective awareness of individuals and within communities, social groups and traditions. It may be experienced as a relationship which is intimately 'inner,' immanent and personal, within the self and others, and/or as a relationship with that which is wholly 'other,' transcendent and beyond the self. It is experienced as being of fundamental or ultimate importance and is thus concerned with matters of meaning and purpose in life, truth and values.
Generally, but not always, spirituality entails an individual's internal sense of connection to something 'more,' something beyond oneself, which could be perceived as a Higher Power, God, or the Universe, but could also be a more general sense of the sacred, a universal consciousness, a shared global purpose, or the interconnectedness of all life. For some, spirituality entails a belief in positive human values like hope, trust, love, persistence, and faith. Some people's spirituality is deeply informed by participation in organised religions, while others describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious.'
I specifically use the term 'spirituality' rather than 'religion,' even though for some people the two are equivalent. Religion generally refers to participation in or endorsement of practices, beliefs, attitudes, and sentiments that are associated with an organised community of faith. In contrast, spirituality is something people can connect with in a number of different ways, including prayer, meditation, yoga, church services, spending time in nature, religious rituals, personal conversations with God, or other forms of acknowledging and/or embracing something greater than themselves that holds deep personal meaning. Belief in God is not a prerequisite for spirituality; many atheists and agnostics consider themselves to be very spiritual people.
Exactly how spirituality reduces the incidence of mental health problems and disease is not completely understood. But then again, neither is the mechanism of some of the most powerful psychiatric medications. We know from observing cause and effect simply that they work.
Many studies have shown that spirituality improves physical health, mental health, and subjective well-being, while reducing addictions, psychological distress, and suicidal behaviours.
A study of ninety-five cancer patients found that spirituality was associated with less distress and better quality of life regardless of how threatening the cancer was to their life. People who attended church weekly were less likely to be hospitalised for any reason, and when they were, spent less time as inpatients than those who went to church less frequently. Religious and spiritual commitment has been associated with reduced incidences of depression in the elderly, quicker, more thorough recovery from depressive illness, and less alcoholism, undergoing a spiritual awakening was a strong predictor of sustained remission.
These studies suggest that physicians can enhance their effectiveness as medical healers by considering, inquiring about, and attending to the spiritual needs of their patients. One research study found that while only 10 percent of psychiatrists believe spirituality is important in their practices, 65 percent of patients with depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric conditions indicate that they want spirituality to play a part in their treatment. A survey of patients hospitalised for medical reasons found that 77 percent of patients reported that physicians should take patients' spiritual needs into consideration, and 37 percent wanted physicians to address religious beliefs more frequently. A large survey of cancer outpatients in New York City found that a slight majority felt it was appropriate for a physician to inquire about their religious beliefs and spiritual needs, although only 1 percent reported that this had occurred.
Those who reported that their spiritual needs were not being met gave lower ratings to quality of care and reported lower satisfaction with care.
But what is it exactly about religious and spiritual commitment that helps people? Many things. Being a member of a supportive religious or spiritual community provides consistent and positive human connection. Religion and spirituality often connect people to something greater than themselves, including a higher purpose. And spiritual practices frequently include messages about healthy living, life-affirming beliefs, and encouragement during difficult times. When it comes to addictions, qualities that protected against alcoholism included an attitude of thankfulness or gratitude, social involvement in a community of like-minded individuals, a belief in the involvement of God or a Higher Power in the person's life, and a belief in God as judge.
Belief in God or a Higher Power can serve as a positive and secure relationship in one's life or compensate for a lack of other positive social supports. The way you view your relationship with God can also affect your mental health and recovery. For instance, people who took a collaborative rather then dependent religious coping style (working with God rather than waiting for God to fix things) showed greater improvement in their mental health and recovery. In many different ways, spirituality has been shown to support and enhance mental health and healing.