Spirituality is typically defined as the search for transcendent meaning or as a belief in a greater existence outside of humankind. It can be linked to religion, but the practice of spirituality is generally considered to go beyond religion and connect individuals with something larger, such as the universe itself.
Both therapists and people seeking treatment may hesitate to include spirituality or religion in the practice of therapy, due to the potential of differing beliefs and the possible controversy of the topic. But research suggests a therapist's inclusion of an individual's spiritual beliefs may assist in therapy and in the process of healing.
Spirituality is generally considered to be broader than any religion one might practice, as it takes into account cognitive and philosophic areas of thought as well as aspects of emotions and behavior. Some might describe spirituality as the attempt to understand one's nature or the meaning of one's existence, but spirituality is also linked to internal awareness and happiness. Many cultures and belief systems hold that a spirit is the essence of one's existence. In these cases, spirituality may also describe a person’s connection to others and to themselves.
Though some may describe themselves as spiritual without adhering to the principles of any religion or even having any religious thought, for others, religion is the manifestation of their spirituality. This manifestation may involve the performance of rituals—in one tradition or in some combination of traditions—with varying degrees of commitment and involvement in that faith. Spirituality may also describe the attention people pay to their own well-being and that of others. For many, the practice of dance, yoga, meditation, or volunteer work, among others, are outlets in which to express spirituality.
Spirituality and health are connected. Just as physical wellness describes health in the body, spiritual wellness describes health in the spirit.
Spiritual wellness can relate to religious belief. Some people link their spiritual wellness to the natural world. Others define it by their relationships to others. Still others may nurture spiritual wellness by living a fulfilling life according to their personal values.
However spiritual wellness is defined, it involves a connection between people and something greater than themselves. This could be a higher power, a person’s own sense of meaning and purpose, or values or belief systems.
Emotional and mental health, physical health, and spiritual health are all part of total wellness. The mind and body are connected, so when wellness in one area is lacking, other areas of health might be affected.
For example, a person who develops a chronic health condition may not feel optimistic about their health improving. If they become unable to work, enjoy hobbies, or take care of activities of daily life on their own, they may struggle to find meaning in life. These feelings could contribute to depression or anxiety.
People in good spiritual health may:
- Be hopeful and optimistic, even when things are difficult
- Have compassion and empathy for others
- Have defined values and live according to them
- Have a strong sense of self-worth
- Be more able to forgive others and themselves easily
- Feel peaceful or in harmony with nature, life, and the world
- Find solace in meditation or religious rituals like worship and prayer
People struggling with spiritual wellness might:
- Feel empty or as if life lacks meaning
- Often feel anxious or unsettled
- Often feel as if they need to improve themselves
- Feel unconcerned or uncaring about life
- Judge themselves and others quickly and/or harshly
- Find self-compassion and self-forgiveness difficult
- Lack a sense of inner peace
- Lack a sense of belonging
Some people consider spirituality and religion to be similar, if not identical concepts. While they are similar in ways, they aren’t the same. To understand the difference, it can help to think of religion as something that’s practiced and spirituality as something that simply is.
Most religious belief systems involve regular activities, such as praying and going to church, though specific religious acts differ between religions. People show their belief in a higher power through these acts of faith and reverence. Someone who does these things might consider themselves very religious, but people who don’t go to church often may have as strong a faith in a higher power as someone who goes frequently.
A person’s spirituality doesn’t necessarily depend on how religious they are. One way to think of spirituality is the inner energy in each person. This inner energy is part of who the person is: it might be their beliefs, values, ethics, or anything else that gives life meaning. It might involve activities that help people clarify thoughts and feelings, like journaling, yoga, or meditation.
People who belong to a religious faith often express their spirituality through their connection to their faith. They might feel supported by others who belong to the same faith and draw strength from their beliefs and prayers. But religious faith isn’t necessary for spirituality. It’s possible to draw meaning from life and feel connected to the greater world without practicing religious traditions or even believing in a higher power.
Religion and spirituality both relate to mental health. A sense of belonging and connection can help promote resilience and decrease risk for some mental health concerns. A 2013 review of multiple studies on religion and spirituality found that, although religion can have a negative impact on mental health in some cases, such as religious abuse or negative beliefs, religion and spirituality often promote positive coping techniques and good mental health.
Research suggests including a person’s spirituality or religiosity can lead to better treatment outcomes. Many counselors now incorporate a person’s spiritual or religious beliefs into sessions.
Some individuals or families may be deeply committed to their faith and base much of their lives around spirituality or religion. Prayer, religious meditation, or some other aspect of spiritual connection may form part of an individual's self-care routine, as might church or volunteer work in the community.
Spiritual beliefs can also play a significant role in one’s ability to cope with adverse events in life. Spiritual practices can:
- Provide social and emotional support
- Help people find meaning and purpose in life
- Offer comfort in times of grief
- Provide ethical and moral guidelines by which some choose to live
When a person who is religious or spiritual seeks treatment, sensitivity on the part of a therapist may be beneficial to treatment because it may lead to a broader evaluation of the person seeking treatment and allow the therapist to explore a wider variety of treatment solutions.
Therapists who are aware of therapeutic strategies based in spirituality, such as spiritual journaling or forgiveness protocols, may also be able to provide people in therapy with resources on these topics, whether or not they are able to address them personally. Individuals who gain strength from their spiritual faith may find it difficult to achieve progress and healing in therapy when unable to address and incorporate all dimensions of who they are.
Many 12-step programs base their principles on belief and trust in a higher power, though this power may not be named specifically. One recent study found the spiritual beliefs of people in therapy impacted their levels of worry, stress, and tolerance of uncertainty. Those participants who trusted in a higher power were found to be more trusting and to have lower levels of worry, stress, and intolerance. Other studies have determined spiritual therapy may be helpful for those experiencing substance abuse.
Some people may use spiritual or religious beliefs to manipulate or control others. This is spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse isn’t always easy to recognize, especially if a person believes they are acting based on their beliefs. But it can have severe, long-lasting effects.
Spiritual abuse is generally seen within a religious organization or within families and romantic relationships.
A key sign of spiritual abuse is shame. People made to feel ashamed by their beliefs or their actions, who aren’t allowed by a partner or family member to practice their beliefs, or who are being manipulated or controlled as a result of their spirituality may be experiencing abuse.
Another sign of spiritual abuse is single-minded thinking. Abuse can occur when religious leaders (and parents or partners) discourage questions, shame or punish those who feel spiritual uncertainty or doubt, or when they aren’t willing to discuss any difference of opinion.
Examples of spiritual abuse include:
- Using faith or spiritual beliefs to extort money, goods, or services
- Using a person’s spirituality to shame them
- Insulting a person’s spiritual practices
- Forcing a person to make a choice against their spiritual or religious beliefs
- Parents not allowing children to make their own choices about religion
Therapy may help people who are affected by spiritual abuse and those who wish to improve their spiritual wellness. Learn more about spirituality in therapy.
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