Wellness: Spirituality’s Relationship to Physical and Mental Well-being

Daniel Nelson Features

This is the fifth in a series of articles from HNP’s Wellness Committee. Information about the group and about health concerns is available through chair J. Patrick Kelly at 201-280-7644 and  member Sr. Vicki Masterpaul at 716-373-0200, ext. 3304.  The author is associate professor in the department of psychology at Siena College.

I hadn’t recalled my father’s advice for quite some time since his passing almost 13 ago years. However, this summer during a hospitalization, his words and paternal counsel came back to me clearly: “No matter what happens, always remain steadfast in your faith; it will always see you through.” Simple, direct, uncomplicated, these words had been born out of his own experience growing up in a single-parent home and having actively served as a Marine in the Pacific theater during World War II.

As I had not been a hospital patient since corrective eye surgery at age seven, my most recent experience was at best disorienting, and at times somewhat overwhelming. In the midst of it all, quite unexpectedly, I experienced the invitation to use this unexpected “hiatus” to renew my connection with that more significant reality of which my father’s words had so poignantly reminded me, namely, the deeper life of the Spirit offered us all in the midst of the vagaries and unpredictability of daily living.

  Learnings from 9/11

The automatic tendency to turn to faith during times of personal or collective crisis is hardly new or surprising. Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, there was a reported 6% to 24% increase in church attendance that continued throughout October and into November. As equally unsurprising perhaps was the fact that such increases in devout behavior reversed themselves to the previous levels over the course of the following three months. Nonetheless, one of the main areas of recent psychological research has been the exploration of the coping function and health benefits of religion and spirituality in dealing with both exceptional and ordinary stressors experienced in our lives. Some of the pertinent, preliminary findings of that research and some suggested implications for our lives is the focus of this wellness update.

In contrast to the earlier antagonism of clinical psychology to the perceived role of spirituality and religion in psychological functioning, current research recognizes the strong contribution that most spiritual belief and practice makes towards that same functioning of the majority of us as expressed in our contemporary American culture. Spirituality and religion have been found to provide a genuine source of personal and collective meaning to human experience. In doing so, they often create a sense of personal or vicarious control and assurance that ultimately “things will turn out all right.” Such reassurance as expressed through use of religious rituals, prayer, meditation and acts of forgiveness is highly related to the reduction of that stress and tension so influential in the development of physical and psychological illness. Ultimately such religious behavior appears to contribute to overall good health including a greater and more coherent sense of personal identity, self-esteem and cohesion.

Several studies have investigated the relationship of spirituality with physical well-being and issues of longevity. While such studies are complex and findings need to be nuanced, there is significant support to suggest that religious coping and practice is an effective way for dealing with health-related problems in a variety of people across different ethnic groups, and varying socioeconomic and education levels. Indeed, religious involvement is positively related, suggesting that such involvement reduces bodily expressions of stress and enhances the immune system.

Other related studies further broaden our understanding of the impact of religious and spiritual practice to include the positive relationship with fostering good-health habits, lowering of blood pressure, and lessening of depression. Additional psychological benefits to those reporting a personal and close connection with God include higher self-esteem, less loneliness, greater relational maturity and greater psychosocial competence, along with better mental health overall. Lower levels of alcohol abuse, drug abuse and sexual acting-out have also been found as being related to deeper levels of religious involvement in these same studies.

Benefits of Strong Spirituality

This same sense of a developed, secure personal relationship with God has further been connected to better health as rated by the individuals themselves. It also contributes to better psychological adjustment when faced with significant life stressors. It is important to note that the size and strength of these relationships is greater among those who claim to have developed such a personal relationship with God than those that are associated with individuals reporting merely a generic measure of “spirituality” such as denominational affiliation, church attendance, frequency of prayer or self-rated “religiousness” (Hill & Pargament, 2003).

In the midst of all this “good news,” it is necessary to acknowledge that some aspects of spirituality and religious involvement may be linked to less positive health outcomes. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to the experience of a significant faith “crisis” or spiritual struggle. While such times of crisis may be associated with any aspect of personal development including spiritual growth, closer reading of the data suggests that it is the way in which such a crisis is managed that “determines” the nature of the outcome and impact on one’s physical and psychological health.

Even a brief and cursory review of this significant research literature supports our understanding that “wellness” incorporates and embraces all aspects of our human experience including physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions. Each component needs to be addressed in order to promote an optimal, comprehensive sense of well-being.

Just as we friars have gradually come to address more effectively concerns about our physical and psychological well-being, it is important that we not ignore or take for granted those of the spirit. It has become a more likely occurrence that friars will openly consult with one another about various options in dealing with an enlarged prostate, their recent diagnosis of diabetes or their experience of “recovery.”Hopefully, we will continue to grow equally in our comfort in sharing the stories of our spiritual struggles. For, indeed, all are but different sides of the same coin.


  • Hill, P.C. & Pargament, K.I. (2003). Advances in the conceptualization and measurement of religion and spirituality: Implications for physical and mental health research.  American Psychologist, 58 (1), 64-74.
  • Spilka, B., Hood, R.W., Hunsberger, B., & Gorsuch, R. (2003). Religion, coping and adjustment. In The Psychology of Religion. (pp. 480-506). New York: The Guilford Press.