SPIRITUALITY AND COPING
If you have a strong, sincere, intrinsic faith system, you have a leg up on life. Interestingly, those who regularly attend church services, pray, and read scripture are more likely to have low blood pressure and strong immune systems; they are less likely to suffer depression from stressful life events; when they do get depressed, they are more likely to recover; they have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer, and are likely to live longer.
Before you decide to run out and praise the lord, let’s analyze this information a bit. It would appear that religious people have these health benefits because their faith system, their spirituality if you will, is part of an overall approach to life they have developed. Sincerely and intrinsically spiritual (we’re going to use “spiritual” instead of “religious” to make the point that our comments are not limited to those to identify with, or practice within, a formal denomination or church setting) people tend to have positive thinking styles about life. Events in their lives are not perceived as random and accidental, but are seen as part of an overall pattern or plan. Furthermore, unpleasant circumstances are seen more as challenges to be dealt with, not as something beyond their control and potentially devastating.
Are there consequences to this lifestyle? Indeed, when spiritual people see meaning in both good and bad events in their lives, they receive a protective sense of coherence with life. This sense of coherence increases the likelihood that they will take care of their bodies, reach out to serve others, and nurture their relationships with valued family and friends. In short, their sincere and intrinsic spirituality allows and encourages them to appreciate, and participate in, the grandeur of life.
There’s no secret to maximizing the probability of being physically and emotionally healthy and feeling good. These states evolve and emerge from those parts of your life that are under your control: the behaviors you engage in, the thoughts you maintain, and the perceptions and interpretations you make about events and people around you. A sense of coherence and purpose to life, and the confidence to meet the challenges of life, evolve from these lifestyles. We know of no anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drugs, or any other type of prescription or recreational substance, that will have such positive, long-term psychological consequences. In a very real sense, if effective coping is a work of art, you are the artist, the creator of your personal masterpiece.
Several times we have used the words “sincere” and “intrinsic” to clarify what we mean by faith and spirituality. Your internal compass, no matter where it comes from, must be genuine. Merely paying lip service to a Supreme Being just won’t cut it. You might go to church so someone will see you there and think more highly of you, but this use of religion to obtain non-spiritual goals will not translate into better physical and psychological health. For a personal faith system to be part of a healthy and productive lifestyle, that faith must be intrinsic and part of a greater spirituality; it must be valued for itself, not for the material rewards, status, or power it may bring. Faith that brings good health and a feeling that you can exercise some control and direction in your life is a faith that is genuine. Such faith can be a principal motivating force in your life, and something that influences your everyday behavior and decisions.
Obviously, we can’t tell you how to go about finding this intrinsic guiding compass. It can be in a formal religious context or not. We’re talking values, morality, ethics, civility, and respect; we’re focusing on developing a social conscience that values the welfare of others; we mean being guided by actions and thoughts that bring you satisfaction, the feeling that you are living and growing as best you can. These are not traits you can search for, and circle a date on a calendar with the notation, “Beginning today I am going to be happy, productive, and fulfilled!” Don’t waste your time.
But if you stop being passive, dependent, and in search of an expert to run your life, if you stop seeking artificial chemical crutches, and if you reach out to those in need, you will most definitely cope more effectively with your challenges. You will enjoy the beauty and grace of other people. You will enjoy self-fulfilling discoveries along a meaningful and enjoyable road of life. That is your calling as a part of humanity. Go for it!