Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spirituality, Wellness And Healthy Outcomes

Why the Interest?
Research is consistently showing a positive relationship between spiritual practices and health outcomes. And there is growing scientific evidence showing that individuals’ spiritual practices and beliefs provide them with hope, optimism, meaning, comfort, and peace when coping with stressors, diseases and challenges in life.

So what exactly is spirituality?
Spirituality is a concept without an agreed upon definition, due to the subjective, multidimensional, and personal nature of the construct. However, many scholars and researchers describe spirituality as a two-dimensional concept encompassing: religiosity, such as one’s involvement in organized religion with shared practices and beliefs, and one’s search for meaning, purpose, and meaningful relationships in life. One need not be religious to consider oneself spiritual. Non-religious individuals can still be very spiritual, and be connected to a higher purpose in life besides religious values.

The Concepts of Religiosity and Spirituality
The concepts of spirituality and religiosity can be confusing, although they are clearly different. Spirituality is more of a broader concept, which encompasses the existential aspects of life, including but not limited to: meaning and purpose in life, meaningful relationships with God/Higher Power and fellow humans, ability to forgive, seek meaningful solutions and endeavors in life. On the other hand, religiosity can be limiting, as it encompasses rituals and practices for individuals to adhere to. Some individuals express their spirituality through religiosity such as regular church attendance, etc. All humans are spiritual beings, but not all humans are religious.

Spiritual Practices & the relationship to disease prevention
Existential spiritual practices such as believing in a Higher Power/God, having meaningful relationships and a clear purpose and meaning in life have been shown to calm the release of deleterious stress hormones, such as cortisol. In addition, spiritual practices have been shown to improve immune function, decreased heart rate, blood pressure, heart disease, and decrease the overall stress response, thereby preventing diseases and improving wellness.

How Spiritual Practices can Prevent Diseases
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is linked to the major brain structures, and it regulates heart rate, blood pressure, emotions, etc. The ANS has two components: sympathetic (fight or flight), which is activated during stressful events, and the parasympathetic, which maintains balance, regulates sleep, induces mediation and other soothing spiritual activities, promotes cell growth, etc. During spiritual practices, such as prayer, meditation, etc, we induce the parasympathetic system and slow down the sympathetic system, hence preventing the release of stress hormones and its effects on bodily organs. Much more, during spiritual practices, the brain releases neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which regulate our mood thus preventing diseases such as major depression and anxiety.

In fact, research shows that those who frequently meditate, pray and have meaningful relationships have higher levels of dopamine, which is associated with increased energy, motor function, happiness, and less depression.

This is definietely s
omething to think about the next time you're stressed, face extreme challenges in life, or have physical illnesses that don't seem to go away - even with medical attention.


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