Holistic healing. body, mind and soul.

After decades of avoiding spirituality and religion as difficult-to-measure and potentially divisive topics, medical research has begun to study the role of spiritual belief in health and healing.

Holistic health refers to the notion that people are intricate organisms, composed of a blend of body, mind and spirit. While we talk as though body, mind and spirit are three distinct entities, they are not entirely separate from each other. Proponents of holistic health believe that what happens in one of these areas affects the other areas as well.

In ancient times, healers in many cultures took a holistic approach to health and healing. Prayer, song and worship accompanied lotions and potions designed to heal. In fact, treating the ailing spirit often took center stage as healers tried to help sufferers overcome disease.

Modern medicine evolved in an age of science, and its focus on biological, measurable phenomena has led to many miracles. But as treatment becomes more specialized and high-tech, many people feel like their doctors are missing something by overlooking the “total picture” of body, mind and spirit.

Although doctors may not do much to treat the mind and spirit while treating a physical illness, many patients seek help for emotional and spiritual needs on their own. Indeed, many people include spiritual practices, such as prayer, in their daily lives. They say that their spiritual beliefs and practices improve their health. And now, after decades of avoiding spirituality and religion as difficult-to-measure and potentially divisive topics, medical research has begun to study the role of spiritual belief in health and healing.

Spirituality can be good for your health

Several studies examining the link between spiritual practices and health have found intriguing results. A number of practices connected with spiritual health, including prayer, meditation, attendance at religious services and expression of religious beliefs, have been associated with positive health outcomes. These studies have been small and preliminary in nature, but they suggest that, in general, people who have spiritual beliefs and practices heal more quickly from surgery, and cope more effectively with serious illness.Researchers have speculated on these interesting findings, and have suggested several ways in which spiritual practice might improve health (perhaps in addition to divine intervention, which they have not yet found a way to measure!). Whether you follow a particular religious practice or not, these findings reiterate what many studies have already found from a different perspective.

Social support eases feelings of stress and helps through difficult times

People need people. We need family and friends to talk to and to call upon for emotional support. The desire to share our hopes and fears is part of human nature. Social support can be found in our families, among our friends, in our communities, at work and in groups to which we belong.

Religious affiliations and other spiritually focused groups can provide a sense of social support and group belonging. In many of these groups, members provide strong emotional support for one another, and in times of stress and illness, people feel comforted by the knowledge that others in the group care. When serious health or other problems arise, members may even provide supportive services for each other, such as meals, housekeeping help, childcare and transportation.

Practices such as praying, singing, meditation and worship can counteract stress

Such activities can elicit feelings of relaxation, comfort and wholeness. When we relax, we feel good, safe or happy. Positive emotion leads to many healthful changes in the body and brain.

Thoughts and feelings influence physical health

Researchers know that some feelings, such as anger, despair, alienation, isolation and helplessness, increase risk of illness.
Forgiveness, compassion and love can “open your heart,” and protect you from the negative effects of stress.

Holistic health and quality of life

Few people follow spiritual practices to prevent health problems later in life; however, developing habits that keep you healthy in body, mind and spirit can have an impact on your health. Nurturing spiritual wellness, in a tradition that feels meaningful and does not violate the rights of others, can enrich and strengthen an individual’s life.

Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

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