Spirituality

For many people, spirituality is a central component of how they experience life and view the world. For this reason, considering spirituality in the context of health is critical.

Spirituality is a way to find meaning, hope and inner peace in your life, but it can mean different things to different people. For many, it is tied to the practice or beliefs of an organized religion or faith to which they belong.  For others, it may not be linked to a particular religion or faith, but can be found through music, art, or a connection with nature. Although spirituality is very personal, the role that it plays in our lives can inform – and transform – our health.

The relationship between spirituality and health

There has been a significant increase in interest in the relationship between spirituality and health over the past few decades. Many research studies have demonstrated that spiritual practices are associated with better health and wellbeing for a number of reasons, including:

Contemplative practice is good for you. Many of these practices guide you to direct your attention inward, to quiet the mind or to increase compassion or empathy. These practices may include prayer, meditation, yoga or journaling. Meditation and yoga have both been found to help decrease depression and anxiety, while prayer and journaling may help you find meaning in life’s challenges and become more resilient in the face of obstacles.

A spiritual community can improve your life.  Many of us find community through participation in spiritual activities such as attending religious services or belonging to a meditation group. These communities can be sources of social support, which may provide a sense of connection and security as well as improved health and wellbeing.

Spiritual people make healthier choices. Some spiritual traditions have rules about treating the body with kindness and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. Research shows that people who practice a religion or faith tradition are less likely to smoke or drink, commit a crime, or become involved in violent activity. They are also more likely to engage in healthy habits like wearing seatbelts and taking vitamins.

Spirituality may help you live longer. A comprehensive review of research that compared spirituality and religiousness to other health interventions found that people with a strong spiritual life had an 18% reduction in mortality. Although there is not yet consensus about the extent of spirituality’s benefit on health, most researchers agree that there is a positive relationship between religious/spiritual practices and better health outcomes.

(The above information was adapted from the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing.  Please visit their site for references, if interested.)

Finding spirituality in every day moments 

As noted earlier, spirituality is very unique and personalized for all of us. There are many ways we can seek and find spiritual experiences – and sometimes they just occur on their own. This happened in a number of ways for me recently.  It began with seeing two living legends in the music world – Marc Cohn opening for Michael McDonald. It was an awesome show – from Marc’s rousing rendition of “Walking in Memphis” to Michael opening with “Yah Mo B There” and closing with an encore (including Marc and his band) belting out Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and of course, The Doobie Brothers’ “Taking it to the Streets” – it was both soul-stirring and soul-soothing. I have loved Michael’s velvety voice for as long as I can remember. And the songs he writes are meaningful, with themes of love and compassion for one another. Seeing him live was on my bucket list and I am grateful I had the chance to do so.

A few days after the show, I traveled to Wilmington to attend a health education conference. Since I don’t get to the coast very often, I was determined to find a little bit of time to walk on the beach. I don’t particularly enjoy the beach in the summer, but I love being by the water in the fall, my favorite season. After sitting almost all day during the conference, I went back to my hotel, grabbed my sneakers and made my way to Wrightsville Beach. I arrived in time to see some surfers making the most of the last hour of sunlight. I walked along the beach, enjoying the sound of the waves and the cool breeze on my face. I laughed at the woman trying to stop her dog from chasing the waves. I smiled at the little sandpipers as they hurried to pick their food from the sand before the water could wash them away. I then took a moment to stop and sit on the sand, taking in the sights and sounds, and silently expressing gratitude for my good fortune to be here, enjoying the splendors of this earth.

And last weekend, I attended Sunday service at the Unitarian Universalist church that is my spiritual home. We have a new minister, and this was only my second time hearing him preach. His sermon was titled “V is for…” and he spoke about the violence and hatred we are seeing across our country and the world, through mass shootings and terrorist attacks. He reminded us of the Golden Rule: to treat others how we want to be treated. He invoked the spirits of Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their collective messages of non-violent resistance. He reaffirmed that the only way to fight hatred is with love. It was a sobering message, but one that is needed now more than ever.

Three totally different experiences, all spiritual moments for me. I invite you to explore the ways that spirituality presents itself in your life and the impact it has on your health and wellbeing.

The Wheel of Health and Your Optimal Health Journey

wheel2-878x1024Today I’d like to share an overview of the Duke Integrative Medicine Wheel of Health (WOH). This wheel provides a framework for creating your personalized health plan – and a map of your optimal health journey. We will explore the various parts of the wheel in-depth in subsequent posts, but for now, let’s look at the big picture.

The WOH represents the whole picture of your health and wellbeing. It is a multidimensional, whole person approach that considers body, mind and spirit. As you can see, it does not focus on just physical health. It goes beyond managing disease and instead emphasizes optimizing health.

Dimensions of the Wheel

You

At the center of the wheel is YOU, because health coaching is a person-centered process. Your health journey is driven by your values, goals and desires. As a coach, I won’t tell you what to do or not to do – you get to decide based on your priorities and what works for you.

Mindful Awareness

Surrounding the center of the wheel is Mindful Awareness. The concept of mindfulness – paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally – is a powerful tool and resource for behavior change.  Being more present and aware of what is happening to you and in you can help you respond to changes in your life in a more proactive, engaged way.

Self-Care

The green ring in the wheel represents the seven areas of self-care. People often focus their efforts here when making changes to their health behaviors. Evaluating your current and desired states in each of these areas can help you create a healthier life. These include:

Movement, Exercise and Rest – This area addresses physical activity, whether it be formal exercise (for example, running 30 minutes a day) or general activities of daily living (such as cleaning the house or grocery shopping). Just as important, it also incorporates the need for adequate rest (good sleep is vital!) and relaxation or “down time”.

Nutrition – In a nutshell, eating a balanced, healthy diet that fuels and nourishes your body and mind. There is no specific diet that is recommended. There are some key healthy eating strategies that we’ll discuss in a future post, but it is also based on what works for your body.

Personal and Professional Development –  It is helpful to assess where you are with personal, career or life goals, particularly at times of transition or milestones. These may include work-life balance, financial goals, and personal growth that will support optimal wellbeing. Regular assessment of your goals can reinforce healthy behavior choices.

Physical Environment – Studies have suggested that your surroundings at work and home can impact your health, either positively or negatively. Exposure to light, noise or toxins in your home or work space can have a major impact on how you feel physically and emotionally. On the other hand, a supportive, nurturing physical environment can enhance your sense of peace and wellness.

Relationships and Communication – Research demonstrates that positive relationships built on open, respectful communication with family, friends and colleagues can have a beneficial impact on your health. Identify those relationships in your life that fuel you and those that drain you. In doing so, you can invest in your positive connections and minimize or re-evaluate those relationships that don’t serve you.

Spirituality – This area is about finding purpose and meaning in something larger than oneself. For some people, it may include a religious affiliation. For others, it may be a connection to nature or the arts. Although the definition of spirituality is very personal in nature, the role that it plays in your life can transform your health.

Mind-Body Connection – This area relates back to the inner ring of Mindful Awareness. It focuses on mind-body practices that can help you be more present. Techniques include things that activate the body’s relaxation and healing response, like breathing practices, meditation, yoga, or guided imagery.

Professional Care

It is important to seek routine preventive medical care such as an annual physical exam, recommended cancer screenings (e.g., mammogram, colonoscopy) and vaccinations. In addition, you can supplement your usual medical care with complementary approaches such as acupuncture, massage, hypnosis or energy work. A primary goal of Integrative Medicine is to remove the distinction between conventional and complementary approaches and create one integrated approach to health care. In this model, patients and their providers work together to determine the most effective, evidence-based personalized health plan to achieve life-long wellbeing.