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Spiritual Beliefs Help People Facing Chronic Illness

People who practice a religion or hold spiritual beliefs report better physical and mental health, and have been found to cope better when facing significant health issues. Belief in a higher power can also improve health outcomes for both men and women, according to researchers at the University of Missouri, who published a study, “Gender Differences in Spiritual Experiences, Religious Practices, and Congregational Support for Individuals with Significant Health Conditions,” in the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health.

“Our findings reinforce the idea that religion/spirituality may help buffer the negative consequences of chronic health conditions,” said Stephanie Reid-Arndt, associate professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions. “We know that there are many ways of coping with stressful life situations, such as a chronic illness; involvement in religious/spiritual activities can be an effective coping strategy.”

Religious and spiritual support includes care from congregations, spiritual interventions, religious counseling and forgiveness practices, as well as assistance from pastors and hospital chaplains.

“Both genders benefit from social support – the ability to seek help from and rely on others – provided by fellow congregants and involvement in religious organizations,” said co-author of the report, Brick Johnstone, health psychology professor. “Encouragement to seek out religious and spiritual supports can assist individuals in coping with stress and physical symptoms related to health issues. Health care providers can urge patients to take advantage of these resources, which provide emotional care, financial assistance and opportunities for increased socialization.”

The study also examined the role of gender in using spirituality/religiosity to cope with chronic health conditions and disabilities, including spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke and cancer. Although other studies report women more likely to participate in religious or spiritual practices, this study – using measures of religiousness/spirituality, general mental health and general health perception – found no differences between men and women in terms of self-reported levels of spiritual experiences, religious practices or congregational support.

“While women generally are more religious or spiritual than men, we found that both genders may increase their reliance on spiritual and religious resources as they face increased illness or disability,” Johnstone said.

For women, mental health is associated with daily spiritual experiences, forgiveness and religious/spiritual coping, suggesting that belief in a loving, supportive and forgiving higher power is related with positive mental coping for women with chronic conditions. For men, religious support – the perception of help, support and comfort from local congregations – was associated with better self-rated health, according to the study.


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