Whether you are facing a health challenge, supporting someone battling illness, or grieving for a lost loved one, trusting in a higher power or finding a place of solace within can provide much-needed strength and help you heal and grieve.
Even the most devout religious believers can have their faith tested to the brink when faced with dire illness, whether his or her own or a close loved one’s. But faith can also provide a place of comfort, peace, or even resolution when grappling with life’s biggest questions and challenges.
Scientific research has shown that prayer helps patients cope with pain and loved ones cope with loss. “Yes, there is a link between prayer and healing!” says Herbert Benson, M.D., professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who was one of the first western physicians to bring spirituality and healing into medicine. “We studied people who prayed repeatedly and were very focused during the prayer. The magnetic resonance imaging showed that there was a decrease in metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and brain activity. Thus, we got scientific proof that prayer affects body functions and fights stress,” says Benson, who is director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and has authored or co-authored more than 190 scientific publications and 12 books, including The Relaxation Response.
Similar health benefits come from meditation. These benefits have been scientifically documented in the west by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., professor of medicine emeritus and founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and founding director of its renowned Stress Reduction Clinic. Kabat-Zinn’s pioneering work proved the positive effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on the brain, the immune system, the body’s ability to heal, and much more, as described in one of his books, Full Catastrophe Living.
MBSR is now mainstream practice throughout the healthcare field, helping patients with chronic pain management, decreasing dependence on pain medication, increasing activity levels and feelings of self-esteem, lowering blood pressure and emotional reactivity, and fostering a sense of inner calm.
In addition to helping patients heal, both prayer and meditation have been shown to aid loved ones in moving through the grief process, on the difficult path to acceptance, and in some cases, to spiritual transformation. Distant prayer, that is, having others pray for us, can also provide strength and hope.
Whatever your definition of spirituality — whether it is trusting your heart, listening to your intuition, living life with a sense of wonder or awe, trusting in a higher power, or following the tenets of a particular religion — try nurturing your spiritual health by exploring what you believe and how it can help you.