Over the last decade, spirituality has declined among the American public. According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2014, 89 percent of respondents said they believe in some sort of “God,” down from 91 percent in a 2007 study conducted by the same firm.
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The 2014 study also found that participation in specific religions was down, with 23 percent of adults reporting that they were not affiliated with any one religion, up from the 16 percent reported in the previous study. Many of that “none” group belonged to the Millennial generation, which the center noted was distinctly less religious than previous generations.
Even though our culture appears to be moving away from religion in general, people still seem to rely on prayer when times are getting tough, as noted by Science Daily, and Time reports that people who start doing yoga for their health often ending up sticking with it for spiritual reasons.
These findings may have a simple enough answer—spirituality can provide you with some surprising emotional and physical health benefits, so check out four of them below.
1. It May Reduce Stress
As a member of a religion or spiritual movement, you’re more likely to do community service and donate to the less fortunate. According to Help Guide.org, connecting with others and being able to help them reduces the stress you experience and its effects. The simple act of giving can bring a sense of well-being and accomplishment, and that also helps relieve the negative impact stress has on a person.
Bear in mind, if you’re not comfortable with joining a religion, you can still usually volunteer at church, temple or mosque-run charity groups. These groups are usually there to serve all members of the community, regardless of religion, and often need extra help from those in the community who are willing to give it.
Stress in general may be eased by spiritual exercises. Any form of prayer can help trigger your sense of relaxation and reduce stress in turn, per the American Holistic Health Association. Prayer doesn’t have to be a set of memorized words you recite, either.
It could be in the form of a private conversation, a request for the benefit of yourself or other people, a quiet walk in nature or just a general statement of gratitude for all that you have.
Another spiritual exercise, meditation, has been shown to reduce stress as well, says the AHHA. It can also boost heart function, decrease pain, help you gain new insight and inspire creativity. There are many free meditation guides online, or you can check with local community centers to see if they offer classes for more guidance and instruction.
One simple meditation technique you can start with involves breathing. Sit upright with your eyes shut, and pay close attention to your breathing. Observe yourself exhaling and inhaling, letting any thoughts you have simply pass you by.
When you start out, you will probably notice your mind wandering off in all sorts of directions. Whenever this happens, simply focus back on your breathing. For an improvement in concentration, you can repeat a mantra or word silently.
As you practice, you will have longer periods of silence between your thoughts, but be aware that this can take months to happen. Don’t force yourself; be patient with your progress. Start off by trying to sit for about ten minutes once or twice daily. If you find yourself pressed for time or too distracted, end the session early instead of just sitting there, feeling restless.
2. It Can Give You A Sense Of Purpose
Research conducted by Laura Dunn, MD, of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California found that just a few 45-minute sessions between an ill person and a chaplain benefited the sick person, and this doesn’t appear to be limited to just people who are ill.
A person who is dealing with a bad situation, such as a messy divorce, a lost job or the death of a loved one, for instance, may also need some help finding their sense of purpose in life during trying or turbulent times.
Sometimes, you just need to talk to someone, and spiritual groups can provide you with an outlet for that. You can also seek out trusted friends or family members if you’re not comfortable speaking to anyone else in your spiritual community or don’t yet belong to one.
3. It May Help With Depression
As reported by CBS News, a study conducted by Yeshiva University and published in the Journal of Religion and Health found that people who went to a service regularly were 27 percent less likely to suffer from depression. They were also 56 percent more likely to have a more optimistic outlook on life.
While the exact reasons behind this are still being researched, previous studies linked the depression likelihood reduction to the social connections people form in religious groups. There are usually regular group activities held in spiritual communities, whether it is a church or yoga group. This prevents a person from becoming socially isolated, which is a significant risk factor for depression, according to Psychology Today.
If you are suffering from serious depression, getting out there and interacting with people can help, but don’t force yourself to do so on the days when you’re really not up to it. If depression is a continuing presence in your life, you should speak to your doctor, as you could have clinical depression and need more help than a social support system can provide.
4. It’s A Potential Immune System Booster
A Duke University study showed a possible correlation between attending religious services and an improved immune system. Over the course of the study, researchers found that adults who attended services weekly were about 50 percent less likely to have elevated interleukin-6 levels, a protein that’s associated with a wide variety of age-related conditions, than those who didn’t.
This effect was still seen, although at a lower level, in adults with things that could impact the immune system, such as a chronic health condition or serious life event.
The researchers weren’t exactly sure what caused the immune system boost. However, they did speculate that some member benefits found in spiritual groups, such as coping skill development and positive behavior encouragement, were potential contributing factors.
You don’t have to run and sign up with your local church or other religious organization today to get these benefits. Try adding some spiritual activities into your life and connecting with others in your community today to start feeling better, and get some stress relief!