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Spirituality for Mental Health

For a long time, psychiatrists largely maintained the position that psychiatry had nothing to do with religion and spirituality. Today, many acknowledge that religious and spiritual practices may have positive implications on mental health and the importance of spirituality in the life of patients. This has led to development of treatment modalities which include rather than exclude spiritual belief and practices like mindfulness based cognitive therapy for treating stress, anxiety, and depression or compassion and forgiveness therapies.

According to a study by researchers from Columbia University, religiosity in mother and its influence on the mother-child relationship played a protective role against depression in children.  The study observed correlation between low level of religiosity, lack of faith and substance abuse in children.

Similar studies in the UK have shown strong positive association between church attendance and lower levels of depression in children and young adults. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, carried out a mega research based on 19,000 meditation studies, where they found Buddhism based mindfulness meditation practices helped reduce psychological stresses including anxiety, depression and pain. A study on suicides in Netherlands also reported decline in suicide rate in convergence with religious revival.

There is a vast body of research now available demonstrating the therapeutic benefits of spiritual practices like yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises on mental health, reduction in anxiety and sleep disorders and severe trauma. Particularly in treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms, 11 studies have reported correlation between religion, spirituality and trauma-related mental illnesses. Still others found, patients of schizophrenia found hope, meaning and comfort in spiritual practices.

 What is spirituality?

 “What can uplift the human spirit? Meditation, knowledge—about what is true and what is not; what is real and what is unreal—and service, sharing yourself with others. A lot about spirituality is meditation which really means going inwards and cleansing your heart. It is because of spirituality there is honesty, creativity, dynamism and most of all energy. “The world is suffering today because of a lack of spirituality,” says global spiritual master and founder of the International Association for Human Values, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Following the Scientific Process

There is a renewed effort today to have spirituality, its influence on our health, both physical and mental, pass through the lens of scientific rigor. This is an important exercise because of the huge influence some of these practices like yoga, meditation, pranayamas, mindfulness, etc., have had on the lives of people globally. The scientific validation helps in mainstreaming of the alternative treatments and therapies that have enormous applicable benefits when put in the right holistic framework.

Drawing on this connection, spiritual leader Sivarama Swami says, “Contrary to popular belief, spiritual life is a scientific process. One part is philosophical, based around yoga literatures (such as the Bhagavad Gita) stating something, and the other is practical, or the real life application of the philosophy, which can give the results described. It is not enough to just believe in a set of ideas and not do anything, because without practice you cannot achieve the desired result.”

On a more individual level for spiritual practitioners, Swami suggests a closer scrutiny of the spiritual process because that can encourage one to keep moving forward along the spiritual path.

“Just because you believe something, it does not mean you can prove it. But results don’t only come at the end of the process of spiritual life. As you move forward on your spiritual path, there are partial results. This is a multi-step experiment in which we must proceed systematically. As we practice the process, we can see that everything recommended in these great ancient yoga texts actually comes to fruition in our everyday lives. As a result, we gain more and more confidence to continue the journey, seeing that everything we have tried so far has worked,” Swami says.

Spirituality and mental health-how are the two related?

Very simply, where prayerfulness and meditation is the cause or action, mental health benefits are a by product. A recent study, for example, published by researchers at University of Kansas suggested that a single session of meditation reduced physiological response to anger even in people who were meditating for the first time. Research wise, the association between adoption of spiritual practices and reduction in symptoms of various mental health conditions be it anxiety, depression, trauma, schizophrenia, sleep disorders, mood disorders, has never been stronger. But spiritual practices have been particularly more effective in treating psychosomatic disorders.

While western medicine deals with a trust deficit, fear of side effects and symptoms, and a general aversion to taking pills with long term implications on one’s health, more people are being drawn to holistic non-invasive approaches with a spiritual or religious origin, for healing mental health conditions, where the relief is deeply experienced and benefits reportedly last longer.

For example, mindfulness meditation exercises have been found effective in treating anxiety symptoms. Dr. Elizabeth Hoge from the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital observed that “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” She further tells the Harvard Health Publishing journal, “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.” Meditation practices increase awareness and this awareness enables one to see the difference between the two clearly and take informed action. Regular practice of any form of meditation, chanting or prayer brings the mind to the present moment and allows one to see the futility of worrying.

Studies also suggest, regular spiritual practices can moderate our physiological response to mental stress, lower oxidative stress (increasing difference between immunity boosting antioxidants and rogue radicals), reduce biochemical markers of stress: cortisol, corticotrophin, blood lactate, ACTH, and plasma MDA.

Today there are hosts of studies done to show the incredible benefits of meditative practices on human brain health, creativity, attention, stress alleviation and endocrine functions but way back in 1968, Dr. Herbert Benson carried out a pivotal study at Harvard Medical School on the benefits of meditation for relaxation.  According to him, meditation was powerful enough to improve what Benson called ‘relaxation response’, which is an individual’s ability to have the body and mind release neurochemicals that slow down one’s muscles and organs and increase flow of blood to the brain. A regular practice of meditation has been shown to

  • Ease heart rate
  • Slow breathing rate
  • Decrease oxygen consumed by 20%
  • Decrease blood lactate levels that increase with stress
  • Improvement in signs of relaxations like skin’s resistance to electric current improved four times and improvement in alpha brain waves. All of which are remarkable markers of positive mental health states.

Studies have also shown profound benefits of religious and spiritual practices in helping people deal with the aftermath of severe trauma. They showed, traumatic events deepened religiosity and a state of seeking spiritual guidance in trauma patients. Also, openness to faith, using religious tools and practices to cope, seeking answers to deal with existential emptiness, participation in religious community events and prayer meetings-they all resulted in better recovery from the trauma.  

Role of Service and Social Connection

An important function of religiosity is it encourages the idea of serving others and connecting with fellow beings; they talk of universal love—a principle that underlies all faiths. Service is an attitude innate to all human beings. Helping others, gives a sense of satisfaction, brings a feeling of pride, boosts confidence, nurtures empathy, and brings a sense of security or connectedness.

Leading Stanford Researcher Emma Seppala writes, “People low in social connection are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behavior, and even suicidal behaviors which tend to further increase their isolation.” The reverse being true as well. “People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.”

Difference between Religion and Spirituality

Often spirituality is confused with religion. Sri Sri explains, “Spirituality is like a banana and religion is like the banana skin.” 

Religion helps one explore the power of spirit. Spirituality is something which helps one become more sensitive towards others, kindles creativity, enthusiasm, gives you an unshakable smile and the power to handle odds in life. It broadens ones vision and gives a bigger purpose to life increasing hope and positivity in one’s personality.

Spirituality is the essence of any religion. Without spirituality, religion loses its juice. Not just that, without assimilation of its spiritual core, religion can turn into a tool of violence in the hands of people, as history has time and again shown. The understanding of spirit or one’s true nature is spirituality. Every child is born with innate spiritual virtues like happiness, enthusiasm, caring, sharing, and peace. Religion is an organized set of beliefs, rituals, community, that one is nurtured as belonging to, through books, mythology, stories and practices. It is a belief system that an individual is given to fall back on, when encountered with situations that are beyond one’s control and one seeks divine intervention.

What Spiritual Practice Consists Of

From chanting, rosary, meditation, yogasanas practiced with awareness, focusing on religious symbols or otherwise, prayer meetings, religious rituals and practices, spiritual reading—any of them can be a spiritual practice, if it connects you to your higher self, which is pure, unchanging unadulterated state of love. The higher self or the higher power may have different forms and identities in different faiths but the realized ones point to their oneness.

Broadly speaking, spiritual practices—either religious or non-religious or quasi-religious—can consist of

  • Faith tradition, participating in traditions of the faith, may include certain practices observed on particular days.
  • Religious rituals and symbolic practices
  • Chanting and prayers
  • Singing hymns, sacred names
  • Spiritual retreats
  • Various forms and techniques of meditation—breath focused, mantra based, instruction based, present moment awareness, body scan, Zen meditation, Sudarshan Kriya, among others
  • Pranayamas, Tai Chi, breathwork, practices connecting body and mind through movement and focus, yoga postures-all these when practiced with total awareness can be powerful tools to go inwards
  • Pilgrimages
  • Walks in nature
  • Acts of compassion
  • Reflection and contemplation
  • Creative engagement—poetry, art, music
  • Make connections and friendships.

Spirituality for Psychosomatic Diseases

“A strong mind can take care of a weak body. But a weak mind cannot take care of even a strong body,” Gurudev says. Spiritual practices are an essential tool to strengthen this mind.

An important mental health implication is the rising burden of psychosomatic diseases. Traditionally the field of medicine has studied the mind and the body separately. But spiritualists have always spoken about the interdependence of body and mind in healing each other. Here we are today with an increasing incidence of psychosomatic diseases, that is the patient shows up with physical symptoms that have manifested for no other than psychological factors or illnesses. Psychosomatic illnesses like psoriasis, hypertension, gastrointestinal problems, migraines, ulcers, pelvic pain or frigidity could be triggered by severe emotional and chronic stress, anxiety or depression. But the bigger question is how are we dealing with our minds to counter these illnesses? 

Mental Health Benefits of Spirituality

Spirituality helps you connect with your purest, truest self through many many ways like we discussed above. It also helps you make sense of the world, life and its purpose. While the goal may be spiritual, these practices do have immense mental and physical benefits too.

  • Improves sense of well-being
  • Reduces depressive symptoms
  • Helps survive and eventually recover post traumatic symptoms
  • Gives a sense of purpose
  • Increases acceptance of others
  • Calmness, steadiness, clarity of mind
  • Fewer thoughts, less worrying and less overthinking
  • More awareness
  • Improved perception, observation and communication
  • Sense of belonging with people and life forms around
  • More appreciation for gifts of life-relationships, material prosperity, etc.

Breath—The Secret Chink in the Spiritual Armor

Gurudev makes a revelatory observation—“One cannot handle the mind from the level of the mind.” This is like trying to tell your mind not to think about a white horse—the mind does exactly that. This is where spirituality in the manner of tools like yoga, meditation and natural healing sciences such as Ayurveda help provide more sustainable ways to deal with mental health without withdrawal symptoms or external dependence. An important tool that is relatively less explored in its power to heal illnesses with their roots in the mind, is BREATH. 

“There is little use in having a machine which you cannot operate without a manual. Spiritual knowledge is like a manual for life. Just as we have to learn how to operate the steering wheel, clutch, brake and so on to drive a car, similarly, to move towards stability of the mind, we must know the basic principles about our life force energy. This is the whole science of pranayama. When our prana or life force keeps fluctuating, our mind also goes up and down through the roller coaster of emotions,” Gurudev says. 

If life force is high, the mind is happier and if prana is low, the mind is clouded and full of doubts. It is for this reason  that many spiritual practices across faiths and belief systems involve deep breathing as a tool to bring up the life force and bring the mind to the present moment.

The inner dimension unveiled by a spiritual practice deeply enriches us and its impact spills over to all aspects of life. Healing of illnesses is just one of the benefits. As prana rises in the body, one starts to feel a transformation as direct experience and not as a forced mental exercise. One starts becoming happier, creative and more in command of their mind and emotions.

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