Spirituality and stress

Stress has long been associated with increased risk for illness including serious health problems such as heart disease. The reason? Stress, particularly if it is chronic or prolonged, can weaken the immune system. It can also lead to decreased productivity, depression and a lower quality of life in general. (See Don’t let stress make you sick.)

While a certain amount of stress is inevitable (and to some degree, it can be argued, a positive force for motivation), healthier lifestyle habits — such as regular exercise, a nutritious diet, adequate sleep and strong social connections — can help you to manage dangerous levels of stress.

Another way to relieve stress, experts say, may have something to do with spirituality. While studies on the effects of religious belief and prayer on health and healing have produced mixed results, experts say that living a more ‘spiritual’ life can lead to better stress relief and overall mental health.

Spirituality defined

So what exactly is spirituality? While it can mean different things to different people, at its core, spirituality is generally thought to be what helps to give a person’s life context. It is not necessarily connected to specific religious worship or belief, but instead is the sum total of a person’s individual value system, connections with others, and search for life’s meaning. Spirituality can be manifested in a variety of ways including religious observance, meditation, prayer, family life, nature, music or art.

How is it good for you?

Spirituality offers a myriad of benefits for stress relief and overall mental health. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can help by:

Providing a sense of purpose. Cultivating your spirituality can help you define what is most meaningful in your life. And if you are able to identify and stay focused on what’s truly important to you, it becomes easier to put things that are less important in perspective and thereby, reduce stress.

Facilitating a connection to the world. If you feel you have a purpose in the world, you’ll feel less isolated and solitary, even if you’re alone. Feeling a part of a greater whole not only provides a sense of inner peace, but it also helps you to release responsibility — and worry — for things you have no control over.

Expanding your social support network. Whether you express your spirituality by attending a church, mosque or synagogue, in your family life, by volunteering in your community, or by taking walks with a friend through nature, this sharing can help to build and strengthen relationships. Strong social connections have been linked with less stress, as well as improved health and longevity. (See The Zoomer Report on Relationships and Longevity.)

Leading a healthier life. People who consider themselves spiritual are not only less stressed, but they appear to be able to heal faster from illness and addiction.

Ways to cultivate spirituality

Looking for a more fulfilling spiritual life? Try these 4 tips.

Seek inspiration. Read inspirational books, stories or essays to help you evaluate different life philosophies. Try to connect with others whose spiritual lives you admire — and don’t be shy about asking questions about how they found their way to a more fulfilling spiritual life. Keep a journal to record your thoughts and insights.

Think positive thoughts. Even during difficult times, it’s important to try to maintain an optimistic outlook and to see the good in people and in yourself. Studies have shown that people with a ‘positive emotional style’ are not only happier, but do better at warding off stress and illness. Try to focus on positive steps to find solutions to your problems, such as talking to a trusted friend or advisor.

Reach out to others. Life, at times, can seem overwhelmingly busy, but make it a priority to nurture your relationships with family and friends. Contribute to your community by volunteering. If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, don’t suffer in silence. During difficult times, it’s particularly important to reach out to your network of friends, family, co-workers and other people for practical help or a sympathetic ear.

Practice relaxation techniques. Get in touch with your inner self — and reduce stress at the same time — with good relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep-breathing exercises and meditation. Or simply give yourself a relaxing evening by turning off the news and your cell phone, and tuning into a good book or your favourite relaxing music. (Reduce stress with classical music.)

Sources: The Mayo Clinic; International Stress Management Association

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ eliandric

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