Candles burning peacefully at nightSpiritual wellness is an important part of full mind and body wellness. Though some people might relate spirituality to religion, the truth is that it isn’t necessary to be religious to connect with your spiritual self.

Spirituality can be defined in many ways, but a simple definition of spirituality is a sense of connection to something greater than the self. In the past, mental health professionals (other than pastoral counselors) often hesitated to include discussion of religious beliefs or spirituality in therapy. But more research shows spiritual or religious beliefs can support mental and emotional wellness, as well as physical health.

Greater spiritual health is likely to have a positive impact on overall wellness. Some people work with a spiritual advisor or religious leader to nurture their spiritual sides. Others may choose to do this on their own.

If you’re considering therapy, or are currently in therapy, and wish to improve your spiritual wellness, you might consider asking your therapist how they feel about incorporating your beliefs and values into therapy. A good therapist can work with your beliefs, even when their own differ. You can also choose to work with a therapist who offers spiritual therapy.

Spirituality in Therapy

People often turn to religion to seek help and counsel for many of the concerns that lead a person to seek therapy, and a person who is spiritual or religious may utilize both fields in the pursuit of healing or well-being.

Therapy, a model of treatment for mind and body, is considered to be a more scientific or medical approach. Spirituality, which encompasses the spirit and other immeasurable aspects, is generally believed to have little place in the field of psychoanalysis, with the exception of religious or pastoral counseling. Therapy does not often include discussion of religion or spirituality, although a therapist may inquire about the beliefs of a person in therapy and encourage them to connect with others in the religious or spiritual community.

Spiritual Therapy

Spiritual therapy is a form of counseling that attempts to treat a person's soul as well as mind and body by accessing individual belief systems and using that faith in a higher power to explore areas of conflict in life. People who believe in a guiding higher power may find spiritual therapy helps them achieve a deeper connection with this power. Through spiritual therapy, a person who is experiencing depression may find a moral conflict is present in some area of life. Anxiety may result when a person is unconsciously engaging in acts of self-sabotage. Spiritual therapy is only one method of uncovering and addressing areas of conflict and possible mental health concerns that may arise in life, but some people may find it to be a beneficial model.

This type of therapy may also involve communing with nature, meditation, music, and other nontraditional therapeutic practices, all of which may be employed in an effort to connect the body and mind with the soul and explore the deepest part of one's self. While spirituality is often categorized with religion, one's spirituality may have nothing to do with religion but be simply an awareness of the universe and one's connection to it. Often, individuals who describe themselves as spiritual state their desire to attain a feeling of harmony with the universe and pursue spiritual therapy in an effort to achieve this goal.

How to Improve Spiritual Health

Research suggests that people who are more spiritual often have higher levels of mental and emotional wellness. Spirituality can also help people cope with stress, health issues, and other life challenges.

Some people connect with their spirituality through religion, yoga, or meditation. But it’s possible to nurture spirituality without belonging to a religion or beginning a specific practice.

Any of the following can help improve spiritual health:

  • Travel. Whether you visit a new country or take a long walk to the nearest city, changing your environment can help you “reset.” You might be able to consider what you’re struggling through a different perspective. Being in a comforting, familiar place can reduce distractions and help you feel more relaxed and peaceful. Visiting a new place can help you feel more connected to the world around you, which can help you feel more connected with yourself.
  • Practice acceptance and optimism. It can be difficult to be positive when faced with challenges, but trying to reframe setbacks as opportunities can help you accept that life is full of challenges. Finding meaning in negative events isn’t always possible, but simply accepting an event and putting your energy into moving forward can help you regain a sense of meaning and purpose in life.
  • Take time to do nothing. You don’t need a formal meditation practice to become more mindful. Even a few minutes can help you connect with yourself. Find a time each day where you can simply be. You might close your eyes or just sit quietly for 10 or 15 minutes. Listen to your thoughts without pushing any of them away. If your thoughts center around something distressing, accept it with compassion.
  • Express your thoughts. Art, creative writing, or journaling can help you express positive and negative thoughts and emotions. Expressing your thoughts can help ground you. You may feel more in tune with yourself as a result.
  • Spend time outside. Many people connect with their spiritual side through nature. Being outside can help you feel more relaxed and may help reduce stress. Exercise also has many mental and physical health benefits. If you’re able to do so, getting outside to exercise can improve wellness in all areas.
  • Volunteer. Volunteering or spending time in the community can help people increase their empathy and compassion for others. If helping others is part of your personal values or belief system, volunteering can help give life meaning. Becoming more aware of other people can also help you feel more connected to the greater world.

Ethics of Spirituality in Therapy

An ethical therapist will not attempt to push personal beliefs on a person in therapy or otherwise attempt to change their spiritual or religious beliefs. However, if it becomes apparent in therapy that a person's beliefs are causing unnecessary distress or if the person expresses difficulty reconciling contradictions between personal values or goals and the constraints of spiritual or religious belief, the therapist may draw the individual's attention to this area. In this case, the therapist may support the individual in the process of clarifying what is essential for them to achieve optimal well-being.

When a person obtains benefit from spiritual practices, a therapist can also assist in the process of more deeply understanding the person's spiritual self. This does not involve any particular teaching on the part of the therapist, but rather, encouragement to inquire into the individual's nature, conscious mind, unconscious mind, surroundings, and so on. A person's choices and the motivation for and consequences of those choices might also be discussed, and a therapist may ask people in therapy who have expressed religious or spiritual beliefs how those beliefs impact choices they have made and what they believe a higher power might want from them.

Discussion of religion and spirituality in therapy, even to this extent, is still often controversial, and many people believe the inclusion of religiously guided treatments may bring about more harm than good. Some research indicates discussions of spirituality and religion in therapy may be challenging for individuals coping with certain issues. But because spiritual distress may manifest with both mental and physical symptoms, a therapist who addresses these topics may be able to provide greater healing and support.

Spirituality in Therapy: Case Example

Grieving religious mother in therapy: Doris, 42, enters therapy for grief counseling after her mother passes away following a lengthy battle with cancer. She tells the therapist although her mother was religious and encouraged Doris to develop her faith, Doris is not religious. This was a point of contention between them up to the time of her mother's death. As the therapist inquires more deeply, Doris reveals she resented her mother’s piety, which her mother frequently pushed on her. However, she also secretly fears her mother is right and she is “in trouble with God." This fear was partially fed by Doris' mother's dying wish that Doris "embrace the love of God," and Doris feels much discomfort regarding her mother's request. Therapy helps Doris express her grief about her mother in the context of other complex feelings, and she also finds she is able to begin clarification of her own spiritual beliefs, which do not focus on a particular religion or higher power but center on an exploration of questions about life, death, and her place in the universe. The therapist also helps Doris come to terms with her inability to fulfill her mother's last wish and accept the normalcy of their differing beliefs.


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