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Wellness and Personal Development

Religious/Spiritual Practice for Stress Reduction

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

A religion is a codified set of beliefs and practices shared by a group of individuals regarding their relationship with a Higher Power (or powers). In contrast, spirituality is about an individual's relationship with a Spirit (which can be a Higher Power like a God, or is a simply a representation of human being's connection to a metaphysical reality greater than oneself). People can be religious without being spiritual (if they are simply going through the motions of following the practices of the group) and vice versa, there are individuals who are spiritual without being religious (people who do not subscribe to a particular religion's belief system, but still feel connected to and contemplate the larger world and the universe beyond).

Spiritual and religious people find various ways to express these qualities by praying, attending religious services, interacting with people who share the same beliefs, meditating, viewing or making art or music, visiting nature, etc. Because many people view the term "spirituality" as the more all-encompassing term, we will use it in this discussion as well. Spirituality can decrease stress, by allowing a person to:

  • Create a sense of quiet, stillness, and peace. We spend so much time rushing from activity to activity and trying to get things done. Similarly, we spend a great deal of time either listening to (or vigorously trying to distract ourselves from) a myriad of thoughts that are rushing around in our minds. Practicing spirituality can give us a quiet respite from all of this rushing around. Time spent meditating, praying, or just appreciating what is around and within us in that given moment can allow space to detach from and find perspective on stressors, enhance our sense of awe at the amazing world that is around us, as well as give us time to gain some or all of the other positive benefits described next.

  • Give up control. Believing in something greater than ourselves allows us to realize that we aren't responsible for everything that happens in our lives. Bad things and good things will happen no matter what, through no fault (or through no specific effort) of our own. Spirituality can allow us to release (or at least decrease) the need to always blame ourselves for bad times and/or continuously scramble to achieve good outcomes.

  • Increase meaning. When those inevitable positive and negative events happen, spiritual practice can help us look for a way to think about those events in a meaningful way. Asking "What can I learn?" or "How can I grow stronger?" instead of asking "Why me?" when something bad happens can serve to decrease negative stress feelings fuel constructive behavior. Similarly, feeling grateful when good things happen can help to spur us to "spread the wealth" and practice altruistic acts toward others.

  • Enhance a sense of connectedness. Feeling a part of something greater than ourselves can make us feel less isolated and alone. In addition, many people who belong to religious and/or spiritual groups receive social support benefits (interpersonal interactions; group activities; mentoring; help with money, food, transportation, respite, etc. in times of need). Most stressors seem smaller and more easy to deal with if we know that we belong to and can connect with a group (or a higher power, or the universe) who can offer acceptance, solace, strength and possibly even solutions.

  • Maintain a sense of purpose. Most of us have spent some time wondering what life is "all about." People who start to think that meetings, unpleasant chores, and the "rat race" is all that there is to life frequently start to feel depressed and stressed. The enhanced sense of connectedness and increased sense of meaning derived from spiritual practices allow us to look beyond ourselves, which increases our sense of responsibility for our wider community and universe.

  • Gain perspective. Spiritual practice can help us to shrink obstacles that seem insurmountable into something approaching a manageable size. In addition, spirituality helps us to clarify our values, and focus on related goals that are important, rather than becoming consumed by material things or circumstances that are truly unimportant.

There are all sorts of ways to cultivate your spirituality. Probably the most common (and most formal) way to plan out your spiritual practice is to join a particular religious group whose beliefs match (or closely match) your own. However, joining a group is not necessary or sufficient to grow your spiritual life (e.g., people who belong to but do not gain benefits from their particular religious group). Other ways to enhance spirituality include:

  • Using prayer, meditation and/or relaxation techniques on a routine basis.
  • Keeping a journal to help you express your thoughts and feelings and to record your progress.
  • Seeking out a trusted adviser or friend, or reading inspirational stories or essays to learn how to lead a fulfilling spiritual life.
  • Being open to new experiences. If you are dissatisfied with a particular type of organized religion, try a new one (or multiple ones). Similarly, if a particular practice (art) doesn't enhance your spirituality, try something different (visiting nature).
  • Sharing your spiritual journey with loved ones, and invite them to discuss their journey with you. During these discussions, remember that different people travel very different spiritual paths; try to resist the temptation to view and behave as if your particular path is the best (or only correct) way.
  • Striving to see the good in other people and in yourself.