No matter our age, gender or background, we all face challenges throughout our lives. We might feel overwhelmed in our jobs or struggle to find work at all. We might be going through big life changes, battling illness or grieving the loss of a loved one. A certain amount of stress is inevitable, but it’s important to find ways to cope.
For many of us, that can mean turning to religious or spiritual practice. We may feel happier, calmer and even healthier. In fact, there is a growing body of research showing a positive effect of spirituality on our health. For instance, in a Baycrest study, higher levels of spirituality were linked to the slower progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
An Easy Mind Means a Healthy Brain
“When faced with the declining health of a loved one, religion and spirituality can provide family members with substantial comfort...”
“Spirituality is our quest for meaning, purpose and fulfilment, often in the context of something greater than ourselves,” says Rabbi Dr. Geoffrey Haber, director of Spiritual Care at Baycrest. Religious practice is a way to experience this, but spirituality is a broader concept. When we take part in an activity or hobby that gives us a feeling of awe, grandeur or connection, we engage in spirituality – from reading Scripture to expressing ourselves through art or cooking up a nutritious meal.
To further investigate the connection between spirituality and Alzheimer’s disease, a joint study was recently launched by researchers at Baycrest and Argentinian research institutes - the Fleni Institute (Buenos Aires), the Kremer Private Institute (Córdoba) and Consultants (Mar del Plata). The scientists are examining individuals with Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment (a stage that precedes Alzheimer’s disease) and exploring whether a person’s level of spirituality affects their decline in thinking and memory skills, as well as their development of behavioural changes.
“Religion and spirituality could have beneficial effects on health through a physiological, psychological, sociological and theological level, which could be helpful in advising clients with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia,” says Dr. Priscila Elliott, a neuropsychologist from the Kremer Private Institute in Argentina and one of the leaders of the study.
For people with Alzheimer’s disease, spirituality is a way to feel connected and content. For example, they may paint, create something out of clay or listen to music they know from their childhood. The resulting feeling of contentment can follow them all day, even if they don’t remember why. Their family members can also take part. “When faced with the declining health of a loved one, religion and spirituality can provide family members with substantial comfort and connectedness to help them approach each new day with positivity and hope,” says Rabbi Haber. Regardless of the challenges we face and our cognitive status, it seems we can all benefit from engaging in spiritual practice.
How to Look After Your Mental Health Each Day
- Belonging to a faith tradition and taking part in services or other activities with people
- Making and keeping good relationships
- Taking part in rituals, symbolic practices and other forms of worship
- Spending time enjoying nature
- Going on pilgrimages and retreats
- Engaging in acts of compassion
- Spending time in meditation, reflection or prayer
- Being creative: painting, sculpture, cooking, gardening, etc.
- Reading Scripture
- Listening to, singing and/or playing sacred music
- Joining in team sports or other activities that involve cooperation and trust
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