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Spirituality Can Help Protect Mental Health

A body of research shows people who are spiritual have better mental health.

Key points

  • The majority of Americans consider themselves spiritual.
  • That's a good thing, because research shows that spirituality reduces the risk of mental health problems.
  • Brain imaging research helps us better understand how spirituality affects the brain.
Microgen/Adobe Stock
Microgen/Adobe Stock

Nearly 70% of Americans identify with a specific religion, and another 25-to-30% consider themselves spiritual.

It turns out, that’s a good thing. A large and growing body of evidence demonstrates that spirituality is good for our mental health.

A systematic review published in The International Journal of Psychology and Religion combined the evidence from 48 longitudinal studies to assess the effect of religion and spirituality on mental health. Researchers found that participants who participated in public religious activities and those who said religion was important to them received significant mental health benefits compared to participants who did not value religion.

Lisa Miller, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University and founder of the Spirituality, Mind, Body Institute, delves into the topic more deeply in her book, The Awakened Mind.

For starters, Miller describes research that distinguishes between spirituality and religion. Her research defines “religious” as identifying with an organized religion, such as Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. It identifies “spirituality” as feeling a direct connection to a higher power and recognizing this same connection or presence in others. There are deeply religious people who are also deeply spiritual, Miller explains—and there are deeply spiritual people who don’t subscribe to an organized religion; they often cultivate their spirituality through nature, art, or charity.

Miller’s book cites research – her own and others' – that demonstrates personal spirituality protects against the development mental health disorders. For example, people who say that spirituality is very important to them are 80% less likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol, 60% less likely to experience a major depressive disorder, and 70% less likely to make risky health decisions. This holds true across different religions and cultures.

A substantial part of Miller’s own research uses brain imaging to connect spirituality and religion. Her most recent study on the topic used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to conduct brain scans while participants recalled personal spiritual experiences. Her team could see which areas of the brain lit up while participants listened to a recording of their own voices remembering a personally spiritual experience.

When participants listened to their own stories of a spiritual experience, researchers saw less activity in the left inferior parietal lobe of the brain, or IPL, part of a region associated with sensory and emotional processing. This activity suggests that spiritual experiences help people cope with stress while preserving their mental health.

Participants in the study demonstrated activity in the same areas of their brains no matter what type of spiritual experience they described. Some talked about “a two-way relationship with a higher power” in a church setting, others described a sense of oneness while standing on top of mountain, and others told about feeling “in the zone” during intense physical activity.

The key component to these spiritual experiences was the overarching sense that things will work out, Miller explains.

In addition to conducting primary research, the Spirituality, Mind, Body Institute is involved in outreach to promote spirituality in communities. The Institute runs the Awakened Schools project, which offers professional development opportunities for teachers to learn spiritually-supportive teaching methods. The Institute also works with the U.S. military to help their leaders cultivate spirituality among U.S. soldiers.

The take-home message: The evidence is mounting that spirituality – whether through organized religion or personal belief – is an important component of mental health.

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