Does Being Spiritual Make You Healthy?

Can being spiritual protect you from depression?

According to a recent follow-up study, published in Journal Watch Psychiatry, researchers found that spiritual engagement may play a major role in lowering or limiting depression recurrence.

Turns out, it’s not what you do, but the simple fact—or act—of doing it. And you don’t necessarily have to seek spiritual solace inside a church or religious institution. Whether it be gardening, private meditation, or a long solo walk in the park, a personal act of spirituality can awaken a healthier you, and possibly help defeat depression.

The original study had examined white Protestant and Catholic women who were considered high-risk for depression. According to that study, “[women] who rated their religious or spiritual beliefs as having high personal importance had one tenth of the risk of other participants for recurrence or new incidence of major depression over 10 years.”

Next, in the 10-year follow-up, researchers looked at adults (again, Catholic or Protestant), who were offspring of the original study. Among the approximately 100 participants, the mean age at the start was 29 years old. Of the total group, 61 percent were female. Participants provided their MDEs (major depression episodes) of which 49 percent were high-risk and 24 percent were considered low-risk.

After making adjustments (for age and sex), the researchers found that participants who reported a high importance of religion/spirituality at the study’s start had a lower risk for an MDE during follow-up than those who did not.

Researchers noted that “denomination and frequency of religious attendance were not significant predictors of risk.” What really seemed to make a significant impact on reduced odds of depression recurrence was having a higher spiritual connection at the start of the study.

In an earlier 2008 study (published in Psychological Medicine) led by Joanna Maselko, Sc.D., researchers examined this very relationship. The 2008 study looked at approximately 900 participants, based on three factors:

  • religious service attendance
  • religious well-being
  • existential well-being

In this case, the surprise to researchers was that “the group with higher levels of religious well-being were 1.5 times more likely to have had depression than those with lower levels of religious well-being.” This led researchers to speculate: do people with depression, then, tend to use religion as a coping method?

But get this: of the people who attended religious services, 30 percent were likely to have had depression. And the people with a high amount of spiritual well-being—those who didn’t necessarily regularly attend services but found spiritual well-being in other ways—were 70 percent less likely to have had depression. So, while there may certainly be advantages to attending services (part of which includes the community support and connection with others), the Maselko study suggests the greatest mental health benefits may come from being spiritually grounded, or having a high “existential well-being.” Spiritual involvement is not about what you choose as your religion or where you find it, but that you find it.  

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