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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Illness and Spirituality

2:39 PM Posted by Stephanie Horgan , ,

Spirituality is a topic that I have a strong interest in, but one I want to tread lightly on, as this is a highly sensitive topic. Religion can be polarizing, similar to politics, so in honor of the government drama going on, I will dip my toe ever-so-slightly into this topic, and may dive deeper in the future. To start off, here is an image from one of my favorite holiday gifts a while back, entitled "Nuns Having Fun." There's something to be said about not taking yourself too seriously, no matter what religious beliefs you have. 

What brought my attention to this was reading the most recent Caring for Crohn's blog entry entitled, "Losing My Religion." It brought up this wonderful intersection of religion and chronic illness. Any illness brings with it challenges, often lifelong, that have a major impact on a person's quality of life. With physical illness, the unpredictability and stigma of the disease can produce mistrust for the patient, not only of his/her own body, but of a higher power that would allow such illness to occur. Integrating personal suffering into a religious worldview can be a challenging task, and one that ebbs and flows throughout life. For as many people that turn toward religion when life gets tough, there may be just as many that turn away. This is why I am careful to at least touch on this topic in my sessions with a patient, but do so in a gentle manner, as there can be many deep emotions around a person's faith. 

I came across a study about chronic pain patients which looked at the relationship between religion/spirituality and physical health, mental health, and pain. The researchers found that "private religious practice (e.g. prayer, meditation, consumption of religious media) was inversely related to physical health outcomes, indicating that those who were experiencing worse physical health were more likely to engage in private religious activities, perhaps as a way to cope with their poor health." I can attest in my own life that the worse my health gets, the more I need to rely not only on other people, but faith. When times are good and illness is in remission, there many not be as much of a pull towards seeking a higher power. The study also found that "forgiveness, daily spiritual experiences, religious support, and self-rankings of religious support, and self-rankings of religious/spiritual intensity significantly predicted mental health status." This doesn't necessarily mean that if you are not spiritual, that you will have worse mental health, but it does show that some of the spiritual principles mentioned above may improve a person's mindset. 

Its well known that religion and spirituality can be a very helpful coping mechanism in the face of suffering with a chronic illness. I see many of my oncology patients talk about their relationship with a higher power and see the comfort it brings them as they go through treatment. There is also much research on Mindfulness and Quality of Life, which although meditation not necessarily associated with any one religion, it has often been paired with Buddhism or New Age theories. I recommend checking out Mindfulness programs, sometimes called MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), in your area if you are looking to start a general spiritual practice. Its more of a discipline of learning to be still and in the present moment. I don't know a religion out there that wouldn't advocate for this. I've also seen Mindfulness and Guided Imagery combined with certain religions, as it is truly just a method of connecting to yourself, and can enhance your current spirituality. Mindfulness provides quiet space for stress to dissolve, and gets you in touch with your breath and bodily sensations. Whether it leads to any other spiritual practice or not, its a great way to slow down from the chaos of our culture, and just be. 

To close, I will leave you with some helpful links if you are looking to live more mindfully. Happy zen time! 
Live Mindfully - Try free online links and mp3 downloads
UCLA Mindful Awareness Research CenterFree online meditations through the web or iTunes