Spirituality and Mental well-being

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Samar Hafeez, Clinical Psychologist and Counsellor

Bangalore, India

Researchers across domains have started to acknowledge and explore the positive impact of spirituality on mental health. It has received a lot of attention in psychiatric literature as both a preventive and a healing strategy.

Spirituality is a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves. It helps a person reflect on the reason for their existence and to search for the meaning and purpose in life. Many describe a spiritual experience as transcendent or a deep sense of interconnectedness with God.

The universality of spirituality extends across cultures, and is unique to each and every person. The degree or the magnitude of it also differs from one person to another. Spirituality and religion (consisting of organised set of beliefs and practices) can go hand in hand both complimenting each other and incorporating healthy practices for the mind and body, resulting in mental and emotional well-being.

What difference can spirituality make?

Emotions and spirituality are deeply integrated with one another and I profoundly believe that all positive emotions in human beings arise or stem from a strong spiritual sense. Spirituality helps increase the occurrence of positive emotions and behaviours such as love, hope, compassion, happiness, peace, contentment, gratitude, forgiveness, empathy and acceptance in our lives. The appearance of such emotions indicate flourishing mental health.

Positive emotions help us grow, learn and broaden our horizons. They increase our awareness, attention, and other cognitive abilities such as memory. On the other hand, they enable us to build self-efficacy and self-confidence and contribute to our interpersonal relationships.

Positive emotions arising from a healthy spiritual self, act as strong internal signals that motivate individuals to explore new possibilities, novel ideas and situations, thereby adding to our growth and development. Interestingly, these emotions have healing powers, helping a person bounce back from any horrible situation.

According to psychologists Tugade, Fredrickson, and Barrett positive emotions mediate the impact of stressful events. Moreover they also help mediate reactivity to stress and recovery from stress leading to improvement in the psychological and physical health.

The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa said: “Do not be jealous of each other, do not boycott each other, do not hate each other, do not contrive against each other. Be all of you brothers to each other, O servants of Allah.”

Spirituality not only helps harness positive emotions but also helps to reduce the feelings of negative emotions like anger, fear, hatred, anxiety, sadness, insecurity, jealousy etc.

Today, our world is engulfed in the darkness of divisiveness and polarisation. Negativity and bitterness infects a lot of our lives, and intolerance is widely spread. Even the slightest shortcoming in respect to our fellow beings can inflame negative emotions, significantly harming not only our mental and physical health but also that of others around us.

Childhood and adolescent years are the years in which seeds of intolerance and hatred can be sown and this becomes extremely difficult to eradicate in later years.

A profound message is summed up in the motto given to the Jamaat by Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IIIrh ‘‘Love for All, Hatred for None’’. If practiced, this can eliminate the root of many emotional ailments in society at large.

Negative emotions are known to trigger the autonomic nervous system, creating a flight or fight response which increases stress hormones known as cortisol and adrenaline. Elevated levels of these hormones contribute to mental and bodily conditions such as anxiety, depression, fat gain, restlessness, emotional eating, insomnia, poor immune function, hypertension, increased risk of strokes and cardiovascular problems.

Positive religious coping strategies like religious openness, facing existential questions and religious participation are associated with reduced depressive symptoms and with improved post-traumatic recovery, according to emerging research.

All of us want to bring spirituality in our lives, but do not know where to start. Below are some suggestions that will help build spirituality and good mental health:

1. Contemplation and self-reflection

The Holy Prophetsa said, “There is no wisdom like reflection” (Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab Al- Zuhl). The Holy Prophetsa was highly self-reflective and he used to retire to a cave on Mount Hira to spend his time in contemplation and meditation. On one of these extraordinary occasions, he found his Creator. Reflecting on nature and the attributes of God improves your communication with Him. Self-exploration is one of the best tools used in psychotherapy sessions to understand a person’s strengths and weaknesses, and it examines unrealised spiritual and intellectual capacities that can be used as a preventive strategy to examine core values of a client.

2. Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness is a practice of being aware and fully present in the ongoing moment. It is a powerful tool that facilitates us to be more conscious about our physical, emotional and mental states without being bogged down by self-criticism, cynicism, and judgement. Oftentimes, insecurities cloud our perceptual mind, preventing us from noticing the pleasant things in life. This is a type of meditation that offers both deep relaxation and insight. It aids in preventing the constant tug of war between thoughts and emotions. It helps develop the ability that will free us from the grasp of our ego. Mindfulness improves our “mentalisation” (the ability to reflect upon one’s state of mind; to have insight into what one is feeling and why). Initial practices include focussing on bodily sensations, sounds and feelings. Many psychologists practice therapeutic mindfulness which includes mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) as they are great preventive mental health care measures.

3. Fast and pray

Fasting is a fantastic way to detox both body and spirit and it enhances God-consciousness and righteousness (Taqwa). This sparks a deeper connection with His graciousness. Depriving ourselves of food and drink for a specific period of time allows us to practice self-restraint and acknowledge God-given gifts. It enables us to abstain from selfishness and cruelty, allowing us to show sympathy to the less fortunate and poor, thereby building a collective consciousness. One feels spiritually renewed and full of energy after each fast. In research, after hours of fasting, women reported feeling an increased sense of achievement, reward, pride, and control, which indicated a rise in self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. It helps increase in alertness, memory and sleep quality. Prayer is a type of meditation in itself, it helps us tame our racing thoughts and riled up emotions, enabling us to break the vicious cycle of stress through the day. Prayer offers a sense of relief and emotional comfort resulting in fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. The feeling of empowerment and security which we get after each prayer, helps us deal effectively with daily life stressors. The Promised Messiahas once said that congregational prayers promote unity and reduce disparity and selfishness. Being aware of the meanings and deeper interpretations of the prayers you recite facilitates attainment in relation to its applicability to improve mental health. Incorporating the habit of reading religious texts like the Holy Quran in the language you understand best assists us in revising our faith, meaning and purpose of life every day. The cognitive and affective reassurance you get from the word of God is unparalleled and highly beneficial to mental health.

4. Community and religious services

The help and support derived from members and leaders of religious communities are widely considered as a key mediator between mental health and spiritual development. A spiritual community creates a sense of belongingness and initiates social engagement and connection thereby protecting people from isolation and loneliness which are precursors of depression and suicidal ideation. They are also a source of spiritual support in times of adversities. These communities also help nurture a child’s spiritual needs by introducing spiritual practices early on. Research shows that  attendance at religious services is associated with healthy behaviours like engaging in physical activities, seeking out preventive mental health care, and avoiding risky behaviours like smoking, drinking alcohol and overeating. In addition it also acts as a protective factor against anxiety, depression and substance abuse related disorders.

5. Keep a spiritual journal

Record your spiritual advancement and progress over time in this journal. Also keep a gratitude journal to record what you are thankful for each day. Remember, gratitude enables us to have the best attitude towards life. Appreciation of even the tiniest good thing that comes our way will keep us content and cheerful all day, every day, which is a sign of excellent mental health. The five daily prayers are an excellent way to show gratitude towards the Almighty.

6. Travel

“Say, ‘Travel in the earth and see how we originated the creation’” (Ch.29: V.21). The Holy Quran calls us to travel. Exploring the wider world is essential to expand our awareness outside ourselves. It gives us fresh opportunities to observe and study the lives of a variety of people and refreshes our psyche. Personally, I travel extensively and it is one of my core spiritual practices. Each time I travel to a new place, I realise my strengths and imperfections in different contexts and this also reaffirms the capable and resilient side of me. Travel helps us get closer to nature and shrink distances between God’s creations. It gives us space and time off from stressors of a buzzing life, by serving as a distraction and relaxation. Try keeping a travel log to jot down your spiritual and mental experiences out of each trip.

Spirituality can act as an anchor which keeps you rooted in your best senses and it also acts as a compass pointing a person forward in the right direction when lost. Spiritual comfort and assistance can help address some of our dysfunctional beliefs or assumptions.

Most of us feel happy, content and joyous as long as everything is going well in life, but the moment something out of our expectation happens, we can start to feel hopeless and disappointed.

Staying stable through adversities and good times indicates a strong spiritual mind and mental blossoming. One should keep their spiritual standards in check and strive to excel each time.

Spirituality and religion both have the power to uplift your spirits and bring delight. Most importantly, they give hope to move ahead without accepting defeat. Integrating spirituality in mental health gives promising results and it is like two great powers, wisdom and science, coming together to evoke healing.

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