Spirituality and its contribution to mental health


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Spirituality has become a subject of great interest lately in the scientific community. This includes the convergence of advances related to the role of spirituality in self-help groups, health psychology, psychiatry, and consciousness research.

Spirituality as a psychological construct and a therapeutic factor.

Spirituality has traditionally been seen as an elusive and difficult concept to study. Therefore, its role in psychological well-being has been considered largely absent. More recently, however, spirituality has been rightly placed in contemporary psychology. This includes metatheoretical proposals that explain it as a legitimate psychological construct, which differs from religiosity and has cross-cultural applicability.

Although spirituality can include religion, it has been defined as an expression of the transcendent means of realizing human potential and synonymous with concepts such as hope, meaning, wholeness, harmony and transcendence (O’ Reilly, 2004). Spirituality has been recognized as an important feature of the therapeutic process and helps improve life satisfaction and well-being and reduce antisocial behavior, substance abuse, and suicide rates (Brawer et al., 2002).

For example, recent contributions to schema therapy, an increasingly popular model adopted by clinicians for working with people with multiple disorders, explain spirituality as “natural wisdom or spirituality that is not necessarily channeled through institutional religion, and which provides a sense of strength and coping with loss and adversity” (Edwards, 2022, p. 5).

Similarly, recent advances in health psychology have developed measures to assess spirituality (Braghetta et al., 2021). A new healthcare framework for a better understanding of spirituality is proposed as an important aspect of healthcare research (de Brito Sena et al., 2021).

Research Evidence Supporting Spirituality

A body of research evidence indicates that spirituality plays an important role in the treatment of medical and psychological conditions (Stanard et al., 2000) and that any form of psychotherapy that explores the depth of the human psyche will eventually reach the spiritual realm ( Elkins, 2005). Meta-analytic results from 31 studies of spiritually-oriented psychotherapies provide empirical evidence of their benefits for people with various psychological conditions such as anxiety, eating disorders, depression, and stress (Smith et al., 2007).

Contemporary contributions to consciousness report the positive and causal associations between spiritual well-being and mental health (Saad et al., 2022), as well as evidence supporting the use of spiritual experiences to treat conditions such as addiction, depression and anxiety to positively transform lives (Corneille & Luke, 2021).

Recent contributions to psychiatry assert that “advanced clinical psychiatry seeks to provide successful treatment for people with mental illness in a comprehensive approach integrating…social and spiritual aspects” (Huber & Schneeberger, 2020, p. 1).

Finally, recent advances from rigorous scientific research examining the effectiveness of 12-step programs (12SP), originally originating from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and addiction treatment, have been shown to be effective stand-alone interventions for disorders related to substance use (SUD), as well as effective complementary professional clinical practices (Kelly et al., 2020). Despite earlier doubts and criticism from academia, today “the evidence for the effectiveness of 12-step interventions is compelling” (Greene, 2021, p. 19). Spirituality is a central construct, therapeutic factor, and mechanism of change inherent in 12SP (Kelly et al., 2011).

Neurosciences, Consciousness and Spirituality

Given the advances and convergences described so far, it is not at all surprising that neuroscience and the clinical benefits of spiritual practices have become major drivers of recent scientific inquiry.

Contemporary consciousness research provides emerging evidence for spirituality by asserting that: (1) the mind is separate from the brain; (2) spirit and soul are comparable to the energy and information that exist in the vacuum of space; (3) individuals can receive accurate and useful intuitive information in their individual and collective lives; and (4) physical and psychological health can be promoted through active spiritual processes of love.

The Wisdom of Carl Jung

Nearly a century ago, Carl Jung noticed that many people of his day were afflicted with debilitating feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, and hopelessness. In his Collected Works, Jung concluded that such feelings were caused by what he called the “spiritual problem of modern man”.

Spiritual Practices – Where to start?

From a personal and professional point of view, I dare say (without exaggeration) that spiritual practices could save anyone from years of suffering and/or psychotherapy.

Unsurprisingly, in recent times, several spiritual authors/teachers – some of whom have become international bestsellers (eg Tolle, Singer) – have been spreading the message of spirituality.

Finally, an alternative starting point for accessing your spirituality is to consider the following distinction of self, provided over a century ago by William James, a founder of the psychological movement. In short, it is about the “I” and the “me” in self-referential consciousness. The self as “I” (the knower or higher self) relates to the self as the subject of experience (the self as subject), which also relates to meditation experiences and studies related to mindfulness and other Buddhist constructs.

The causative agent, the thinker or observer who thinks or observes, is also responsible for self-awareness and self-knowledge. The “me” (the known self) relates to the self as the object of experience or cognition (the self as object). This distinction in self-referential consciousness has recently reappeared in neurocognitive science, particularly in experimental studies of the phenomenological self and consciousness.

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