Understanding the Role of Spirituality in Mental Health Recovery

January 15, 2024   •  Posted in: 

What role does spirituality play in your life? Some people may identify strongly with one religion; for example, if you’re a follower of Christ, then you might go to church every week or study the Bible. Others don’t belong to a particular church but may think a lot about the meaning of life (and what’s beyond).

In mental health recovery, it’s not about religion or science (like many of us may have been taught to believe) – it’s religion and science. Furthermore, the benefits of religion and spirituality are science, because research shows good spiritual health is a key factor in mental well-being.

What are religion and spirituality, and what is the difference between the two?

Religion and spirituality share similarities, but are different in important ways.

Religion is an organized set or doctrine of beliefs, practices, and rituals that happen within a specific institutional framework. It often has a set doctrine, sacred texts, and a community of followers. For example, the Roman Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, the Lutheran Church, Judaism, and so on, are religions.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is a broad personal connection to something beyond the self. It’s about seeking meaning, purpose, and a deeper understanding of existence. Spirituality can be expressed through various practices, beliefs, or experiences and doesn’t necessarily require you to practice a particular religion.

One can be spiritual without being religious, or religious and spiritual simultaneously. They’re not mutually exclusive. For example, you might attend church every Sunday (religion) but also have your own private conversations with God (spirituality).

Spirituality is not better than religion or vice versa. They can both be very helpful in supporting your mental health.

What is the role of spirituality and religion in mental health?

Religion and psychology have a connected history. For a long time, mental illness was seen as a spiritual deficiency or even demonic possession. People who were suffering from mental illness were often sent to spiritual leaders (like a priest) to be “cured,” and received no other treatment.

Sigmund Freud and his peers brought forth a more modern understanding of mental health. Freud and others like him understood that mental illness required treatment, not exorcism, and created psychotherapy to help people with mental illness through the power of talking.

Unfortunately, Freud also initially viewed religious beliefs and experiences as neurotic manifestations or wish fulfillments stemming from unconscious desires. This perspective led to a perceived conflict between religion and psychology.

Thankfully, we now understand the positive role that religion and spirituality can play in mental health. Research has shown religious involvement and spiritual practices can be associated with better coping mechanisms, reduced stress, greater resilience, and enhanced well-being. Contemporary psychology encourages a more integrative and holistic approach, recognizing both religion and spirituality can be essential dimensions of human experience.

Spirituality and religion reduce depression risk

A large body of scientific research shows people who have healthy spiritual lives are less likely to experience symptoms of mental illness, especially depression. It also reduces the risk of suicide.

For example, one review of several studies concluded that religious and/or spiritual people were often less likely to have depression. Longitudinal studies (studies that follow the same participants over a long period of time) have found people who attended religious services at least monthly were 22% less likely to have depression symptoms. People who reported that religion and/or spirituality was very important to them had only one-fourth the depression risk as people who didn’t find religion important[1].

Spirituality and religion improve depression remission rates

Spirituality and religion can also help during recovery from depression and other mental illnesses. One study focusing on hospitalized older adults found participants who were intrinsically more religious recovered from depression symptoms more quickly after discharge[2]. In another study, attendance at religious services was found to be the main predictor of how well someone recovered from depression[3].

Spirituality and religion help with substance abuse recovery

If you’ve ever taken part in a 12-step substance abuse group, you already know religion and spirituality play a big role. It turns out science supports this; research has found religious and spiritual people are less likely to develop problematic drinking or drug use. They’re also at least somewhat more likely to recover from these problems[4].

Why are religion and spirituality beneficial for mental health?

Psychologists now understand that a spiritual life is an essential part of the human experience. When you’re disconnected spiritually, then you’re missing this part – which means your mental health may not be as complete as it could be.

No matter what religion or form of spirituality you identify with, there are so many benefits to having a healthy spiritual life.

These include:

  • Providing meaning and purpose. Religion and spirituality offer a framework for understanding life’s purpose and meaning. Belief in a higher power or a greater purpose can help you find direction and motivation, and reduces existential anxiety and depression. In other words, it can ease the pain of wondering, “Why am I here?”
  • Fosters hope and optimism. Faith in a higher power or spiritual principles often instills hope and optimism, which can help you cope with challenges and setbacks. Believing in a positive outcome, even (or perhaps especially) in difficult times, can significantly enhance mental resilience.
  • Builds social connection. Religious and spiritual communities provide a sense of belonging and social support. Interacting with like-minded individuals fosters friendships, social engagement, and a support network, all of which are crucial for mental health.
  • Encourages healthy coping mechanisms. Rituals, prayers, and meditative practices can act as healthy coping mechanisms when you’re feeling distressed. They may help you to manage stress and anxiety without turning to unhealthy habits like substance use or emotional eating.
  • Helps you practice forgiveness and reconciliation, which can improve your interpersonal relationships. Religious teachings that emphasize forgiveness and redemption can also alleviate your own guilt. The idea of being forgiven and starting anew can be profoundly liberating for your psyche.
  • Strengthens resilience. Religious and spiritual beliefs often encourage resilience in the face of adversity. The notion that challenges are part of a larger plan or a test can strengthen your ability to bounce back from difficult experiences. For example, take this verse from Romans 5:3-5: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
  • Facilitates self-reflection and personal growth. Practices like prayer and meditation encourage self-reflection and introspection, which promote personal growth and self-awareness. Understanding yourself better can lead to improved mental health and a more fulfilling life.
  • Promises a future beyond death. Many of us have an understandable fear of death. This anxiety can sometimes affect mental health. Belief in an afterlife or spiritual continuation beyond death can reduce fear and anxiety associated with mortality, especially for people who are nearing death. It provides comfort and a sense of continuation, and can ease end-of-life concerns for many.

How to improve your spiritual health

If you feel your spiritual life could be healthier, that’s okay. Spirituality and religion aren’t things you “pass” or “fail,” and there are always ways to strengthen your spiritual connection to God or whatever your higher power may be.

Practice mindful self-reflection

We often associate mindfulness with Eastern spiritual traditions like Buddhism. But mindfulness also plays a big role in Christianity and other religions as well. It’s simply about staying present and gaining insight into yourself and the world around you.

By embracing reflection and meditation to still the mind, you can foster inner peace and nurture a deeper connection with yourself and your Creator.

Mindful self-reflection can also help you realize what spiritual or religious beliefs resonate with you most. It can help you define what a healthy spiritual life looks like for you.

Use positive religious coping strategies

In research, it’s only people who use positive religious coping strategies that experience a boost to their mental health. Examples of positive religious coping might be to pray to God, to have hope in God’s presence and power, or to connect with a spiritual community for social support.

On the other hand, negative religious coping strategies can actually make your mental health worse. These are things like feeling like God is punishing you when life is difficult or feeling abandoned by God.

So try to focus on the positive side of spirituality, and allow it to give you hope.

Explore meaningful practices and rituals

Even within the same religion, different people may find different practices more or less meaningful. For example, taking Communion might be very important to some Christians, while not so much for others. Find practices and rituals that feel meaningful to you. This can help you feel more spiritually connected.

Bring spirituality into your everyday life

Religion and spirituality shouldn’t just be about attending church or religious event once a week. Although that can be a meaningful practice for many, building spiritual health is about finding ways to allow spirituality into your day-to-day life.

Ask yourself questions like: What are some of the core spiritual beliefs or values you hold? How do those beliefs affect the way you see yourself and others? For example, a classic Christian teaching is “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 9:18). What are you doing in your everyday life to bring this verse to life?

By finding ways to bring spirituality into your life outside of church, you can benefit more and more from its power.

Christian-focused mental health treatment in Washington

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we use holistic treatment methods to provide a healing experience that reflects your values, interests, and spiritual beliefs. Mental health recovery isn’t just about looking at symptoms; it’s about helping you heal from within. Spirituality and religion are often an important part of recovery, and we’re here to help you on your spiritual path.

Our unique Whole Person Care approach ensures your treatment will address the physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual elements of your life. Although we are a Christian-focused treatment center, no one will be turned away for being of a different faith or spiritual tradition. The important thing is to help you connect with something greater than yourself.

Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you and your family.

1 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8462234/
2 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9546001/
3 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33120244/
4 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24335768/

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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