Spirituality can be defined broadly as connecting to something outside of self.
Spirituality is the way you personally make meaning and purpose in your life through something greater than yourself. It does not have to be tied to being religious and believing in God.
But does spirituality improve life?
Research shows religious coping is associated with lower rates of stress, depression, and anxiety, and with increased levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, physical and mental well-being, and more satisfying interpersonal relationships
*For example, 90% of Americans reported that after the 9/11 terrorist attack, they turned to prayer, religion, or some form of spiritual activity.
*Roughly 85% of the world’s population has some sort of religious belief.
*In the United States, 45% to 60% of people who have emotional problems seek help from clergy first.
Most humans seem to be connected to something that transcends them; something “bigger” than they are.
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard believed the cure or antidote to despair is religious faith (in his case, Christianity).
So even though spirituality is a mystery it’s still a powerful strategy to include in a life plan.
As a Licensed Professional Counselor, I was trained to never push my faith beliefs on my clients. But, I was trained to always ask people about their beliefs regarding spiritual things.
Here are ten ways you can incorporate spirituality into your life.
1. Rely on faith and prayer to rekindle your sense of hope in yourself and others and in the future. Collaborate with God in solving life’s problems. In my counseling office, I always ask people if they would like me to pray for them at the end of the session. I have counseled Christians, agnostics, atheists, and all have asked for prayer. Almost 100% of the time their eyes are filled with tears when we are done.
2. Find people who believe as you do and build a supportive network. Twenty-five years ago, I had low-level depression and high anxiety. One day while walking around the lake near my home I ran into the pastor of a nearby church. We struck up a friendship. Then our family began attending the church where he served, the church that has become so instrumental in helping us raise our children, strengthen our marriage, comfort us during time of loss, and teach us our faith traditions.
3. Seek inspiration, guidance, and comfort via prayer, meditation, scripture reading, and music. I find all of those essentials in an iPhone app called Pray-As-You-Go. I hate the name of it because it sounds like fast food prayer, but in actuality it’s a soothing way to start my day.
4. Engage in rituals. Lighting a candle, fasting, reading daily devotionals, hiking to your favorite place in nature, or doing Stations of the Cross are just a few examples of rituals in which people find comfort. The photo for this post is a candle I lit the night my first grandchild was being born.
5. Choose positive ways of coping. What do you do when horrible things happen in your life? When you lose your job, your house burns down, or you receive a diagnosis of a terrible disease? Do you feel like God has abandoned or is punishing you? Do you continually ask “Why me?” Doing these things increases your pain and reduces your emotional resilience.
Positive coping is defined as “a response aimed at diminishing the physical, emotional, and psychological burden that is linked to stressful life events and daily hassles.”
Researchers are learning how certain coping strategies reduce the burden of short-term stress and long-term stress.
For any given form of suffering, some will face it more effectively than others. How they face it depends on choices they make. People can be given resources that buffer future challenges in order to reduce stress when the need arises. These resources can be physiological, psychological, or social. There are many books and journal articles to be found under the topic of Post Traumatic Growth.
6. Tell Your Story. Grieve and forgive. To fully grieve you must first tell the story of what happened. It’s preferable to tell your story to a safe person: Because we get hurt in relationship, it’s there we heal. The resources for telling your story often come via your religious social network.
Experiencing the comfort from a counselor, pastor, or friend who can hear your story helps you give it a narrative (a beginning, middle, and end). Once your story is in narrative form—heard and emotionally processed—there seems to be less need to ruminate in a negative way. Often you can make sense of why you or others did what they did. The outcome is forgiveness.
7. Offer yourself compassion. In the book Emotional Agility, Susan David, PhD, says we think self-compassion is a weak behavior. But really it’s the opposite. She teaches us to treat ourselves as we would a younger version of ourselves who was scared or hurt. Research shows that being able to do this sharpens your edge. David says, “… it’s even associated with eating right, exercising, sleeping well, and managing stress during tough times, which is needed when you need to care for yourself the most. It even strengthens your immune system, helping to ward off illness, while encouraging social connection and positive emotion.”
8. Write an obituary or epitaph of how you want to be remembered. Your spirituality will help you implement your core values into everyday life. Take some time to consider the following questions:
When you look back over your life, what will mean the most to you?
What do you want your legacy to be?
Who are the people that matter the most?
What do you hope they remember and say about you?
9. Let your spirituality provide a framework for your search for meaning. Existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, while held in a concentration camp, decided that despair came from suffering without meaning; therefore, he decided to give meaning to his suffering. He never believed his suffering was good, but he was able to extract something positive from the tragedy: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change.”
I let my own childhood traumas serve me in my work with clients. I know what damage the violence and loss I experienced in childhood did to me emotionally, and I know what helped me heal. In other words, my trauma story contributes to my work as a counselor. People who have a “why” to life can cope with almost any traumatic event.
10. Reset your moral compass in whatever means possible. Even though I was deeply committed to my faith, I never thought I would find freedom from shame over the poor choices I made in my youth. With the help of a counselor I learned why I had made those choices. With this knowledge I was able to forgive myself and let the shame dissipate.
Recently a client told me that it was hearing a pastor confess his sin of an emotional affair to the congregation that helped her forgive herself for past choices she regretted.
I feel privileged to hear the private stories people share in my counseling office. Most people think they are the only ones who have experienced such stories. I promise, if you heard all the stories I’ve heard you would realize each of us has issues, regrets, and shame. We are all just humans having a human experience.
I hope you are inspired to seek meaning, comfort, hope, love, transcendence, wisdom, creativity, forgiveness, and peace through the mystery of spirituality.
*Readers who feel uncomfortable with the words spiritual or spirituality can substitute their own words—perhaps words like connection or love or meaning.
**Some material cited from Roadmap to Resilience by Donald Meichenbaum, Ph.D.