As we are at the time of year when numerous cultures are celebrating different religious holidays, it brings forth the concept of spirituality. What does spirituality mean? Is it different for each person? How does it affect your health?

Spirituality is defined as a sense of connection to something bigger than yourself and is often involved in the personal search for the meaning of life.

Our brains process sensory experiences by looking for patterns and seeking the meaning of those patterns (cognitive dissonance). Basically, once we believe in something, we’ll try to find an explanation for anything that conflicts with our beliefs. We are hardwired to ask the big questions, such as why are we here or what is our purpose.

For each person, spirituality means something different and we can change our definition of it throughout our lives to adapt it to our experiences and relationships. Some view spirituality in terms of participating in organized religion by attending a church, synagogue, or mosque. Others take a more personal approach with private prayer, yoga, or meditation. It has been shown that even skeptics of religion feel that there is something greater than the concrete world in which we live. In this sense, spirituality is a universal human experience that affects all of us.

Overall, those who are more spiritual have more positive emotions like peace, awe, contentment, gratitude, and acceptance. This has been shown to be a source of comfort and reduces stress. Typically, as we broaden our outlook by recognizing and incorporating a connection to something larger than ourselves, it helps to create a positive state of mind that leads to improved emotional health.

In numerous studies, it has been proven that those who are more spiritual usually have lower blood pressure, less stress (even when dealing with a difficult situation), and less depression which leads to overall better health, more positive feelings, increased coping mechanisms when dealing with being sick/stressed and better psychological well-being than those who aren’t as spiritual. Spiritual beliefs have been found to produce more feelings of hope and this has been linked to positive physiological changes.

Some people might be concerned that spiritual beliefs could negatively impact health outcomes for several reasons. The first is that certain beliefs don’t allow for some treatments that have been proven to positively treat conditions (ex. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in receiving blood transfusions, even if it could be lifesaving).

Another reason is that some people who are spiritual decide not to have treatments because they are putting themselves in the hands of the deity that they believe in. This causes others, who may not believe in this viewpoint, to see it as having a negative impact on the sick person’s health. However, the person is usually at peace with the decision and their emotional state is often a positive one, which is proven to provide comfort and encourage healing.

When you consider that almost all Americans believe in some type of spiritual being and that nearly three-quarters of them wish that their spiritual commitment be addressed by their healthcare professional, the positive impact that this could have on the health of people should not be dismissed.

While we may not be able to answer exactly how spirituality has such a positive influence on health, it should be addressed and respected. For healthcare professionals, it is important to remember that we don’t need to personally accept or share the beliefs of patients nor impose our own personal beliefs on them, but we should definitely respect and address them.

As individuals, we cannot pass up the data that supports the importance of the role that spirituality plays in our health. Given all of the positive benefits that spirituality has on one’s health, how can we not embrace it as a powerful tool in helping people achieve wellness?