I’ve always been fascinated both by spirituality and human psychology, so the intersection of the two is a topic I’ve been following for years. Among some scientists, the mention of faith is often seen as a sign of lower intellect, or perhaps worse, as a sign of mental weakness. Faith, in other words, is for people who aren’t strong enough to handle life and need something to comfort them. Yet, one study found that over 50% of college professors believe in some form of a higher power. Hummm… Similarly, in many faith communities, atheists or agnostics are perceived as evil or fundamentally wrong in some way. Needless to say, neither extreme perspective is likely to be helpful to personal well-being or positive relationships.
So, given this often uncomfortable relationship between science and spirituality, I found it interesting that Irving Yalom, a psychotherapist and psychiatrist who is considered one of the field’s “masters” in therapy, both prescribes psychotropic medication and also insists on discussing the meaning of life with his patients. Could he be on to something? Is it possible that medical science and spirituality can combine to create better outcomes for patients?
Does Faith Improve Health?
Science points us to the answer (turns out science can be a nifty tool after all!). Research has in fact shown that people who are spiritual, which is defined as having a strong belief in something greater than themselves and finding life purpose and meaning through that belief, are happier and experience less anxiety. It also appears that spirituality impacts physical health. In 2000, The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that religious involvement predicts successful coping with illness, and that spiritual practice is akin to abstinence from smoking, in that is adds 7 to 14 years to the lifespan! In the last ten years, The Journal of Health Psychology, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, and Psychiatric Annals have each dedicated a special issue to the topic of spirituality in clinical practice. Another study found that 83% of patients wanted their physicians to ask about spirituality and faith in at least some circumstances.
Spirituality in Psychotherapy
Of course, physicians generally have neither the time nor the training to assist patients with spiritual concerns, so it would seem that psychotherapy might be a helpful place to explore how one’s spiritual health affects their mental or physical health. The problem though is that many therapists are themselves not well trained in the area of spirituality and some therapists are uncomfortable asking about their patients’ spiritual journey. This means that personal growth opportunities are missed. Issues that bring people to therapy, for example, marital difficulties, grief, sexuality problems, etc. often have some relationship to spirituality and religion and exploring that can be useful to both the patient’s therapy goals and to the therapist’s understanding of the human being in front of them. By helping our patients explore all areas of their health and well-being – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – psychotherapists and counselors can address a wider range of concerns, ultimately resulting in greater well-being and improved health for those who entrust us with their care.