There is disagreement on the definition of spirituality. It really depends on what you read and who you listen to. The way I see it is as believing, considering, being curious about and connecting to something bigger than yourself. Most people do agree that spirituality and religion are separate things. Religion is more about rituals and community programmes. Spirituality can certainly be connected to faith, but perhaps doesn’t have to be. Spirituality is something that we often keep private. Unless we belong to a faith-group or are talking to a close friend, our own spirituality is not a topic that’s often discussed. However, spirituality is the most central component of the Canadian Model of Occupational Therapy. The profession believe that spirituality is absolutely central to physical and mental health. So what’s that all about? What’s the link between spirituality and mental health?
Research suggests that there is a positive link between spirituality and mental health. Specifically, spiritual practices that are characterised by personal empowerment, that affirm and embrace diversity and promote emotions such as hope, forgiveness and purpose. Spirituality really is central to who we are. I believe the Canadian Model of Occupational Therapy is right in placing it centrally. Spirituality informs our values and therefore how we live our life.
Here’s a brief walk into some of the reasons why researchers think spirituality might be beneficial for our mental health.
Spirituality involves looking beyond yourself, to something higher or bigger or greater. It involves taking a different perspective on life and generally a view that holds onto hope. Hope is often something that gets lost in illnesses such as depression. But hope is often needed for recovery. When we are struggling with emotions, It can sometimes feel very difficult to find hope within ourselves. Mental health issues can make the future feel challenging rather than hopeful. But engaging in our spiritual side involves connecting to something outside of ourselves. Which can make us feel less stuck.
Mental health issues can feel hugely isolating. Conversely, spirituality often involves faith and connection to another. For example, prayer involves connecting to God. In a similar way, some people find that connecting to nature can feel like a spiritual connection. This sense of connection can challenge the isolation of mental illness. Importantly, rather than feeling that you are in it alone, you feel connected and supported.
Not all spirituality involves groups of people, but some research has been done into faith-based groups and these do involve community. Community can also contribute to you feeling connected and can combat isolation. It also offers the potential for social support. We all need other humans in our life. Social support is a big part of mental health recovery. So any activity that promotes this is likely to be helpful.
Some spiritual practices encourage people to steer away from illness-related behaviours such as smoking, excessive drinking and poor nutrition. The link between mind and body was traditionally in the domain of alternative medicine but is more widely recognised now. We know now that looking after your physical health will have a direct impact on your mental health.
Spirituality is not something you can switch on and off. And its also not something reserved for Sunday mornings. You don’t need to have a faith and you don’t need to be a hippy! Spirituality is really about being open to there being something bigger than yourself. Being willing to listen, and accepting that we don’t have all the answers. Even if you’re very clear on your beliefs, and don’t feel there is room for faith, there is still the potential to connect to something bigger. We are, after all, sitting in our space in a small part of a massive universe. So regardless of your faith, you are certainly part of something bigger.
So take a walk in nature. Notice the intricacies in the spiders webs. Feel the wind and breathe. Connect. Or light a candle. Wonder at the cleverness of fire. If you pray, then pray. If you don’t then write down what you’d say if you did. Or just be inspired. Go to the beach and imagine how many grains of sand are underneath your feet. Climb a tree and find a different perspective. It’s a pretty inspiring world when we look closely enough.
Here’s a short video that shows exactly how much bigger, and smaller, everything is, to inspire you:
If you want to read more then this article goes through some of the research on spirituality and mental health. There are also recommendations at the end for further reading. If you want something less meaty this is a shorter article.