Can spirituality promote a healthier physical life for your family? Recent medical studies indicate that spiritual people exhibit fewer self-destructive behaviors (suicide, smoking, and drug and alcohol abuse, for example), less stress, and a greater total life satisfaction.
Much of the research linking spiritual and physical health has involved elderly patients; however, the data offer a glimpse into a possible tie between a spiritual life and good health for people of all ages.
Although spirituality has been shown to reduce depression, improve blood pressure, and boost the immune system, religious beliefs should not interfere with the medical care kids receive.
So what exactly is spirituality and how can it enhance your family's health?
Spirituality and Physical Health
Doctors and scientists once avoided the study of spirituality in connection to medicine, but findings within the past 10 years have made some take a second look. Studies show that religion and faith can help to promote good health and fight disease by:
- offering additional social supports, such as religious outreach groups
- improving coping skills through prayer and a philosophy that all things have a purpose
Although research on kids hasn't been done, many studies focusing on adults point to the positive effects of spirituality on medical outcome:
- In a 7-year study of senior citizens, religious involvement was associated with less physical disability and less depression. Death rates were lower than expected before an important religious holiday, which suggested to researchers that faith might have postponed death in these cases.
- Elderly people who regularly attended religious services had healthier immune systems than those who didn't. They were also more likely to have consistently lower blood pressure.
- Patients undergoing open-heart surgery who received strength and comfort from their religion were three times more likely to survive than those who had no religious ties.
Spirituality and Mental Health
Religious and spiritual beliefs are an important part of how many people deal with life's joys and hardships. Faith can provide people with a sense of purpose and guidelines for living.
When families face tough situations, including health problems, their religious beliefs and practices can help them fight feelings of helplessness, restore meaning and order to life situations, and promote regaining a sense of control. For some families, spirituality can be a powerful and important source of strength.
Medical studies have confirmed that spirituality can have a profound effect on mental states. In a study of men who were hospitalized, nearly half rated religion as helpful in coping with their illness. A second study showed that the more religious patients were, the more quickly they recovered from some disorders. A third study revealed that high levels of hope and optimism, key factors in fighting depression, were found among those who strictly practiced their religion.
Can Spiritual Beliefs Enhance Parenting?
Attending organized religious services may help some families connect with their spiritual values, but it's not the only way. Less traditional paths also can help kids and parents find spiritual meaning.
To foster spirituality within your own family, you may want to examine your own values. Ask yourself: What is important to me? How well do my daily activities mirror my values? Do I neglect issues that matter to me because I'm busy spending time on things that matter less?
Here are other suggestions to start your family's spiritual journey:
- Explore your roots. In examining your shared past, you and your kids may connect with values of earlier times and places, and gain a sense of your extended family's history and values.
- Examine your involvement in the community. If you're already involved in a group, maybe you will want to take on a larger role — first for you, then as a role model for your kids. If you haven't joined a community group, consider investigating those in your area.
- Recall the feelings you had at the birth or adoption of your child. Try to get back to that moment in your mind, remembering the hopes and dreams you had. It can be the start of a search for similar or related feelings in your everyday life.
- Share some silence with your kids. Take a few minutes for silent meditation alone or together. Think about parenthood, your life as an individual, and your place in the larger scheme of things. Spend time discussing these thoughts with your kids and listen to their ideas on what spirituality means.
- Take a nature walk. Nature has long been an inspiration and spiritual guide. A walk will relax you and allow you to contemplate the wonders of the world around you.
- Read books that express spiritual ideas with your kids and share your thoughts about what you're reading.
This search can be conducted on your own or as part of a larger group — a religious community, friends, or your own family. Making a spiritual journey might help you and your family live a healthier life, both emotionally and physically.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2011