How Religion and Spirituality Affect Our Health
A look at the research shows that both can help us—in different ways
Many people use the terms “religious” and “spiritual” interchangeably, but studies show that they affect our wellness in markedly different ways. There is a difference between managing your outward behavior and managing your inward emotions, and both affect your soul.
Interestingly, the whole country seems to be following a health regimen of some sort—gluten-free, low carb, high protein, vegan, or sugar elimination. In our endless march toward physical fitness, we try exercise, supplements, vitamin shakes, and nutritionist-endorsed meal plans. Plenty of diets admonish us not to eat certain foods, but what kind of diet are we feeding our souls?
I was raised as a Methodist minister’s daughter and later attended various churches: Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal… I attended vacation Bible school, made crayon drawings of crosses and doves, memorized Bible verses, and went on church retreats twice a year. Still, I wasn’t sure what I believed, deep down.
By the time I got to college, I defined myself as a seeker. I went to youth fellowship meetings, read about Buddhism, took a World Religion course, and even thought seriously about joining the Baha’i faith. Nothing fit, but I remember knowing that the search was important. I was 19, and I said out loud, “If God exists, then learning more about God is the most meaningful thing I’ll ever do.”
My search turned up all kinds of answers, some of which were in direct conflict with each other or with what felt true to me. I decided to keep searching, while adhering to the Golden Rule of treating others the way I would want to be treated. Now, in my mid-40s, my conscience still feels pierced when I fail to treat others with kindness. I also make time for active meditation, the only kind I can stand: I give my mind time to slow down, making room for contemplation and silence while doing something physical like walking, folding laundry, or emptying the dishwasher.
I found that the Golden Rule structured my behavior in the world, while active meditation offered space for my mind to enrich itself through introspection, self-examination, and appreciation. For me, that combination worked, and it felt right.
Recently, I began to understand more clearly why that combination worked. It tackles soul health from two important angles: behavior and emotions.
New research from Oregon State University explores the impact of religion and spirituality on human health.
The study puts forth a new theoretical model: Religion provides a set of rules and beliefs guiding behavior, while spirituality offers methods for managing emotions internally and regulating the experience and expression of those emotions.
Religion helps followers engage in healthier lifestyle practices on a daily basis. Religious people tend to drink less alcohol, smoke less, and have healthier habits overall. Spirituality helps followers examine their feelings and mindfully witness their own fleeting emotions. Ultimately it helps us have a calmer outlook, lower blood pressure, and a more even-handed approach to dealing with life’s stresses.
Those who combine routine religious practice with a committed spiritual practice are more likely to achieve both healthy outward behavior and healthy inward experience.
My mom credits religious writer Dennis Bennett with offering her a way to think about how her spiritual life has been strengthened by religious practice. She told me, “I have been an Episcopalian for over 20 years, after being reared Methodist, finding faith and joy in the Pentecostal Holiness Churches, and finally settling in a charismatic Episcopal Church. I love liturgy because it provides the banks of the river through which the Holy Spirit flows.”
My mom gets it, and now so do researchers: Religion and spirituality offer differing and complementary avenues toward health, which can be achieved through structured behavior and emotional regulation. Religion and spirituality can work together to create healthier individuals in mind, body, and spirit.
This article first appeared on Rewire Me. Pamela Milam is a therapist and life coach who lives in Dallas and New York. She is the author of Premarital Counseling for Gays and Lesbians and is working on another book that takes a close look at what happens inside the therapy office.