A few days before my scheduled double mastectomy, I begrudgingly allowed a dear friend to take me to a “healing service” at her church. My reluctance grew out of uncertainty — what was a “healing service,” anyway? And, was it worth a precious hour or two of my time while I was busy preparing my family and myself for surgery, recovery, and the months of chemo to follow?
Can I hear the chorus sing a resounding YES?
The healing service I attended consisted of a small group, led by a minister, who prayed for friends and community members who were in need. At one point they tenderly put their hands on me and offered their heartfelt prayers for my successful recovery. Their empathy and compassion profoundly affected me — I became overwhelmed with emotion and shed a few tears. I left that service feeling stronger and more at peace with what lay ahead of me. Those positive changes in my emotional state demonstrated to me the power of spirituality.
But what is spirituality? And why did a healing service affect me so deeply?
Spirituality is generally defined as that which gives meaning to your life and allows you to transcend your self. Spirituality can be distinguished from religion, which is defined as a specific set of beliefs and practices, usually within an organized group. Spirituality can be expressed through an organized religion or in other ways including prayer, meditation, interactions with others or nature, or a relationship with God or another higher being. In other words, you can be spiritual or religious or spiritual and not religious or religious and not spiritual or spiritual and religious (got that?).
Similarly, prayer can occur individually or in informal or formal groups, such as in a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple. Prayer may be silent, spoken aloud, sung, or chanted. Prayers often express gratitude or ask a higher being for help, understanding, wisdom, or strength in dealing with life’s problems.
The healing service that so affected me was a spiritual, religious, AND prayerful experience.
Although available research has not supported claims that spirituality or prayer can cure cancer or any other disease, spirituality is linked to a better quality of life in people with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. A study of breast cancer patients found that spiritual well-being was linked to lower levels of depression and an increase in energy and a feeling of vitality. Researchers have also reported that patients who were seeking peace and meaning in their lives through spirituality lowered their levels of emotional distress.
Additionally, recent studies by neuroscientists have demonstrated a connection between spirituality and cognitive function. These studies have utilized brain imaging to show that intense prayer or meditation causes changes in numerous structures and functions in the brain that specifically enhance social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions. Researchers have found that the longer one prays or meditates, the more of these changes occur in the brain.
Whether you are in a difficult state of treatment, remission, or are caring for someone with cancer, there are many approaches to decreasing emotional distress and/or finding more vitality. And you don’t have to attend a healing service to find spirituality. Practices to introduce or deepen your spirituality vary and what nourishes one person may not resonate with another. Some include:
- praying alone or with someone else
- having someone else pray for you
- meditative breathing
- reading scripture or other holy works
- repeating one passage from your religious tradition over and over again like a mantra
- seeking support through a trusted clergy member or other professional
- listening to classical or spiritual music
- spending time in nature
- talking about spiritual matters with a friend or family member
- practicing gratitude
- serving others
Seeking spirituality can deepen our sense of connectedness to the world, provide us with a sense of wholeness and peace, and can evoke inspirational meaning in our lives, all of which can reduce emotional distress and depression. It’s finally spring! Try planting seeds of spirituality and let your vitality grow.