It’s no secret for us that mental health professionals have had rough times dealing with religion and vice versa. How spirituality affects mental health is a question that has been studied for years now, and the answer has different perspectives.
The history of how these two have interacted for the past years is very interesting and enlightening. I believe there’s a lot to learn from each, and of course, a lot that should be taken with special care.
Today I will like you to travel with me through this history, and allow you to decide whether mental health and spirituality are two completely unrelated things by yourself.
Where Do We Come From?
To begin this discussion about mental health vs spirituality, we need to remember our roots. Where does each discipline come from? Have they changed with time? Have we changed?
The word “spirituality” is often associated with religion. And I have said in my previous blogs, religion has hints of spirituality, but they do not necessarily depend on each other. You can be a spiritual person without religion, and a religious person without spirituality.
Spirituality and mental health have been previously studied for centuries in Eastern ideologies such as Buddhism, but in Western traditions, it only has a history of roughly 100 years of research.
However, ego fights between erudite of religion and science have created this “war” between them, where human beings and their development are the ones more affected.
For a long time, religion didn’t accept scientific advantages and treated mental patients as demonically possessed beings, not being able to treat them properly. And science, on the other hand, has been ignoring the importance of spirituality and its positive effects on people’s mental health, pointing at coaches and spiritual guides as “placebo promoters.”
To begin discussing how mental health and spirituality are related, we first need to detach spirituality from religion. The main reason is that many pieces of research and analysis understand this difference theoretically, but operationally, can be understood as the same thing because the distinction between religious practices and spirituality is often blurred.
What Is Spirituality?
John Swinton, a Professor in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen, has done an excellent job differentiating spirituality from religiousness, here’s his definition:
“Spirituality is that aspect of human existence that gives it its ‘humanness’. It concerns the structures of significance that give meaning and direction to a person’s life and helps them deal with the vicissitudes of existence. As such it includes such vital dimensions as the quest for meaning, purpose, self-transcending knowledge, meaningful relationships, love and commitment, as well as [for some] a sense of the Holy amongst us.”
Why do I like this definition so much? Because it implies that we, humans, are social, physical, emotional, biological, AND spiritual beings.
It’s a holistic approach that smoothly separates spirituality from religion, which can be understood as “institutionalized spirituality” because religion besides having many sets of beliefs, also has doctrines and usually the presence of a God worshiped by a community.
Those religious elements are, also, the reason why some religions lose their spirituality. They become institutions of oppression, divine punishment, and shame instead of becoming agents of peace, love, harmony, and acceptance.
Where Do Spirituality and Mental Health Meet?
Religions, just like spirituality, have a purpose and many benefits for humans. But when their spirituality blurs and religious dogmas take over, it can lead to many negative effects that often are interpreted as “spiritual damages” to your mental health.
Essentially speaking, mental health is composed of two dimensions: the absence of mental illness and the presence of a well-adjusted personality that is part of a community.
Religion and spirituality are understood as two different things, and can influence a person’s mental health for good or bad, but to predict which one will be can be tricky.
For example, Freud once believed that religion was an illusion that led to neurosis, and he was right. Many men and women of the time were being physically, socially, emotionally, and morally punished if they had thoughts, behaviors, or lifestyles that did not match strict religious rules, causing their psyche to be wrecked by repressed impulses.
We now understand that narrow-minded religious beliefs may lead to the development of mental disorders. But a religion with a spiritual approach, one where the person is guided by positive emotions instead of eternal punishment, can actually show improvements in the person’s self-esteem, personality, relationships, adjustments, mental disorders, and trauma healing.
In fact, spiritual health is also a dimension of what a healthy person is according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“The spiritual dimension is understood to imply a phenomenon that is not material in nature, but belongs to the realm of ideas, beliefs, values and ethics that have arisen in the minds and conscience of human beings, particularly ennobling ideas. (…) The spiritual dimension plays a great role in motivating people’s achievement in all aspects of life.” (World Health Organization, 1991).
When I discuss this matter with people I give counseling to, some ask me if they should join a religion or they should better nurture their spirituality, and the best answer I can give them is “only you know”.
You are the one who knows better what you need. Sit down in your room, do some breathing exercises to calm your mind, and ask yourself if you believe in God. And if the answer is yes, do you consider it necessary to worship that God in a temple? Do you feel the need of praying/talking to that God? If you do, I will not stop you from searching for the religious guidance you are looking for.
But I will also advise you to care about your spirituality. And to always remember that whenever a religion makes you feel ashamed of who you are, instead of encouraging you to become better for your own good and humanity’s, it may be time to reconsider where you are standing.
What Are the Effects of Spirituality in your Mental Health?
Now that we have a clear difference between religion, spirituality, and mental health, I consider it appropriate to describe how come positive spiritual practices can lead to a healthy mind.
Let’s begin with an interesting example, Thomas Ashby Wills, Professor of Epidemiology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine created a scale that determined how important was religion to children, the results showed that it was not only extremely important, but that it was keeping those children from smoking, drinking, and using drugs.
However, it has also been proven that orthodox religious practices and religions that constantly manipulate believers and treat them as “sinners” no matter what they do, tend to cause neurotic responses and put the person in such a stressful state that they can develop negative physical and mental consequences.
Does this mean that spirituality is a better approach to a healthy mind than religion? Not exactly. In this research, for example, they found out that highly religious and highly spiritual people tend to be more optimistic and happier than people that are just spiritual or that have no religion.
Please understand that spirituality is such a broad concept and can be experienced in so many different ways, that accurately measuring if it’s better than a religion or not could be impossible.
The way I see it, and the experience as a mentor I have gathered, religion and spirituality are beneficial as long as they are not oppressive nor focused on shaming and control. Therefore, highly spiritual religions can also have positive effects on people’s mental health.
This research also explains that general evidence supports the existence of these positives effects, but clarifies that depending on how spirituality is expressed, it can lead to positive outcomes or negative ones.
Pros of Spirituality for Your Mental Health
Here are some of the positive outcomes of having healthy spiritual beliefs:
- Development of higher levels of empathy and compassion
- Self-esteem improvements
- Correct management of emotions
- Rediscovering the beauties of being alive
- Better comprehension of the world
- Refrain from unnecessary behavioral patterns
- Decrease of unhappiness, stress levels, and negative thoughts
- Improvements in dealing with pressure
- Motivational boost
- Capability of identifying problems and solving them more efficiently
- Increase of general satisfaction levels
- Making better life choices
- Healing trauma
- Correct identification of toxic people or behaviors
- Healthier eating and sleeping habits
- Finding or recovering a life purpose
- Physical improvements such as normal heartbeat, decrease in gastric diseases, decrease in hair loss, recovery of the ideal weight, etc.
- Healing from addictions
- Fewer headaches and nausea
These benefits are proven to be positive throughout one’s lifetime, but of course, only if the spirituality you are practicing or the religion you are following is based on positive reinforcements, beliefs, and practices.
Cons of Spirituality for Your Mental Health
As I have said before, not everything that glitters is gold, and spirituality can have some negative outcomes for our mental health.
However, I would like to clarify that harmful spirituality is the one that leads you to orthodox religious practices and the one that, essentially, is based on dogmas more than self-improvement or enlightenment.
Spirituality is never about unbreakable rules or being unable to use logic. Spirituality is about rediscovering yourself, about looking around, and find multiple explanations instead of an almighty one.
The cons about spirituality for your mental health I will mention now are often a consequence of wrong management of spiritual beliefs, and of course, consequences of religions that use spirituality as a vehicle to control people’s minds and actions:
- For some people, constantly deconstructing themselves can be exhausting
- Extreme beliefs can cause isolation
- Rejection from people who don’t share your beliefs
- Triggering negative mental processes such as hallucinations, paranoia, panic attacks, anxiety.
- Devotion for fake gurus
- Slowly becoming part of a sect
- Reliance on supernatural powers
- Cognitive dissonance
- Obsessive behavior
- Self-hatred and constant self-blame
What Determines the Relationship Between Spirituality and Mental Health?
When I talk with people who are starting their spiritual journey I discover that most of them need to change due to external factors. Change must come from within, independently of the external cause that may be telling you changes are needed.
Some of the mechanisms studied among the researchers of the spiritual and mental fields are the locus of control, social support from relatives and communities, psychological defense mechanisms, environmental factors, and coping styles.
For example, religious or spiritual beliefs often allow people to reinterpret life events that seem uncontrollable. Yes, many things in life happen without your consent, but it’s you and the way you handle your emotions the element that determines whether that event will affect you positively or negatively.
Then we have the social factor. Having a supportive family, friends circle, and community has positive effects on those trying to heal from trauma or leaving addictions behind.
Spiritual practices like meditation, mindfulness, and yoga only get you in touch with your inner self. They offer you time and a safe space to get to know you better, which, ultimately, is what spirituality is about.
In this blog I mentioned general views of how spirituality affects your mental health. The way I see it, and considering the experience I have had mentoring others, spirituality is a beneficial practice for people’s mental health.
First of all, because it provides a solid ground for self-understanding. It also promotes healthy practices like meditation and self-enlightenment, allowing the person to identify inner thoughts and behaviors that may be toxic for your self-growth.
But what happens with those who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, bipolarity, and schizophrenia?
In the second part of this blog, I will address those matters, but I can give you a small preview: people with mental disorders can and should be practicing spirituality.