There is perhaps nothing more valuable than health in our lives. The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely an absence of disease.” One must not measure health only in terms of the frequency or severity of diseases but overall well-being. WHO defines ‘quality of life’ as to how individuals perceive their position in life in terms of their culture and value systems and concerning their goals, expectations, standards, and concerns.
Health is an amalgamation of physical, psychological, and spiritual factors, combined with social well-being. It is also largely dependent on achieving a harmonious balance between numerous factors like culture, values, social background, and religious and philosophical beliefs.
Religion, prayer, meditation, and spirituality
Almost every culture that the world knows uses some form of a mental or spiritual technique like prayer, ritual, mental intentions, dreamwork, or the laying-on-of-hands. These techniques are mostly used for spiritual healing and have been in use from prehistoric times.
There are numerous religions across different cultures in the world. The common link between them is that they all use symbolic elements or rituals to connect to the divine.
Spirituality, on the other hand, aims to find meaning in life and answers to fundamental questions of life through experiences that go beyond the human realm. Though many people think that religion and spirituality are the same, they are not.
However, both religion and spirituality are positively associated with physical health. Rituals associated with spiritual or religious beliefs have been found to improve physical and mental health, with a positive bearing on the immune system, satisfaction with life, optimism, and a decrease in anxiety and depression.
Prayer is an act of communication with the divine. It is a particularly important intervention in the spiritual care of those who are suffering. Praying is a spiritual activity that promotes well-being and hope.
Meditation is an act of practicing mindfulness or focusing the mind on a particular thought or activity to achieve a clear, calm, and stable state of mind.
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Effects of prayer, meditation, and spirituality on health
Several studies have been made to understand the effect of prayer on health. Most studies conclude that prayer indeed is a positive factor in one’s overall well-being. It has been known to reduce anxiety and decrease in concern of patients who believe there is a solution to their problem.
Prayer is a form of meditation that brings about psychological and biological changes associated with good health. Meditation has been found to regulate blood pressure, decrease heart rate, regulate hormones, and boost the immune response of the body.
- Prayer and Healing: A medical and scientific perspective on randomized controlled trials
- Impact of meditation on resting and ambulatory blood pressure and heart rate in youth
- Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation
Meditation and prayer have also been known to have a positive effect on reducing stress, improving mood, reducing anxiety, alleviating pain, and enhancing self-esteem.
- A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction
- Meditation’s impact on chronic illness
- Is spirituality a critical ingredient of meditation?
Are humans hardwired for spirituality?
Prof Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School has been conducting his own experiments on prayer for many years now. He led the “Great prayer experiment,” also known as the “Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer.” In 2006, the experiment concluded that prayer has no positive effect on coronary artery bypass graft patients. However, prayer still had a multitude of beneficial effects on human health. As per Prof Benson, the healing effects of prayer lay in the repetition of words or sounds.
Since prayer, meditation, and spirituality have a profound effect on the brain, it led to the question if the human brain was hardwired for spirituality. The search for the answer led to the emergence of a new discipline of neurotheology or the neuroscience of religion.
According to neurotheologists, the structure and function of the human brain predispose us to believe in the divine.
How do meditation, prayer, and spirituality affect the human brain?
Meditation causes an individual to go into deeper levels of concentration. As that happens, an intense activity can be seen in the parietal lobe circuits of the brain. The parietal lobe processes sensory information primarily related to touch, taste, and temperature.
As the activity intensifies in the parietal lobe, the frontal lobe and temporal lobe circuits get disengaged. The frontal lobe controls important cognitive functions like memory, emotional expression, problem-solving, and judgment. The temporal lobe is responsible for creating conscious and long-term memory. When the frontal and temporal circuits become disengaged, the mind-body connection is temporarily lost.
The limbic system of the brain, responsible for emotional responses, gets activated. Since it is also responsible for regulating relaxation, it controls the autonomic nervous system and also regulates the heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. As a result, everything feels emotionally significant, and many people feel a sense of awe and calm.
How does religion affect health?
According to Harold Koenig, MD of Duke University, religious beliefs can have several effects on personal health. In his book, the Handbook of Religion and Health, he documents nearly 1,200 studies conducted on the effects of prayer on health.
According to Dr. Koenig, religious people tend to lead healthier lives as they are less likely to smoke, drink, and drink and drive. A separate study conducted at Duke, Yale, and Dartmouth Universities shows that those who pray also tend to fall sick less.
Some key takeaways from these studies were:
- The average stay of hospital patients who never attend church tends to be three times longer than those who attend church regularly.
- Heart patients who did not participate in religion were 14 times more likely to die after surgery.
- Elderly people who do not attend church regularly tend to have twice the stroke rate of those who do.
- In Israel, the death rate from cardiovascular disease and cancer was 40% lower for religious people.
Dr. Koenig also said that religious people tend to get depressed less, and those who do, tend to recover faster.
Healing through prayer, meditation, and spirituality
Indigenous cultures held no demarcation between healing and a connection to the divine. It is only us that make this separation between a rationalist approach and an engagement with the sacred. Whatever is said and done, people are still yearning for a deeper sense of meaning and a connection to their spirituality.
According to a study, nearly 80% of adult Americans have prayed for their own healing. 90% of them have prayed for someone else, with 50% confirming that they do so quite often.
Epidemiologist Jeff Levin notes that more than 1,600 studies have been conducted examining the correlation between religion and spiritual participation and health. The findings are startling. People with strong educational backgrounds believed that such practices were essential for health and well-being.
Across cultures, people believe in and practice spirituality for healing. In the Hawaiian Kahuna tradition, religious-spiritual practitioners and healers are one and the same.
Complementary and alternative medicine
Complementary and alternative medicine refers to the array of therapies beyond conventional medical treatment. According to data from the 2002 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), 62% of people use some form of CAM therapy, including prayer, for health reasons.
The ten most commonly used CAM therapies were:
- Use of prayer specifically for one’s own health (43.0%)
- Prayer by others for one’s own health (24.4%)
- Natural products (18.9%)
- Deep breathing exercises (11.6%)
- Participation in a prayer group for one’s own health (9.6%)
- Meditation (7.6%)
- Chiropractic care (7.5%)
- Yoga (5.1%)
- Massage (5.0%)
- Diet-based therapies (3.5%).
Benefits of spiritual healing
Besides having beneficial effects on the mental and emotional well-being, the other benefits of spiritual healing include minimal costs and no medications or medical devices. The human mind is extremely powerful with the ability to heal both physical and emotional ailments.
Prayer, meditation, and spiritual healing also help people cope with difficult circumstances. People get a sense of guidance, which brings with it hope, purpose, and new meaning. Prayer can enrich the overall quality of life and bring a feeling of peace and acceptance.
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Even though there have been numerous studies regarding the effects of prayer, meditation, and spirituality on healing, acceptance among medical professionals varies. Some feel quite strongly about not mixing medicine and spiritual practices, while others don’t. However, one must remember that prayer or spirituality is not a substitute for medical care.