Spiritual but Not Religious? You Can Still Get Miraculous Benefits

Praying has many health benefits, but it appears having a deep respect for life does, too.

August 19, 2009

Secular or religious spirituality can help your health.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Previous studies have found that people with deep religious beliefs often enjoy more positive outcomes after surgery. But a new study found that people who have a deep reverence for life also enjoy the benefit, according to research presented at the American Psychological Association's 117th Annual Convention in Toronto earlier this month.


THE DETAILS: The study examined the effect of various faith factors, including traditional religious beliefs and practices and newer forms of spiritual seeking, such as a sense of reverence (a feeling of deep respect and connectedness to nature, art, or music).

Researchers looked at 177 patients set to undergo coronary artery bypass graft surgery, conducting face-to-face interviews with them two weeks before their surgery dates to learn about their religious and secular spiritual beliefs. They followed up with the patients after their surgeries. People who were spiritual in a secular way faced fewer post-surgery complications and didn't have to stay in the hospital as long after the surgery than patients who weren't spiritual or religious. Reverence for life was the most potent type of spirituality that aided patients. Researchers found that frequency of prayer was also associated with fewer complications during recovery; attendance at church was not.

WHAT IT MEANS: In 1970, Herbert Benson, MD, of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, found that faith and prayer offer a healing mechanism through a stress-busting relaxation response. Through rest, word or phrase repetition, and deep breathing, he found, people can change the way they respond to stress. Unchecked stress can cause high blood pressure, heart problems, and insomnia. Other studies have found that exercise and meditation can have similar relaxing results. This study adds evidence that whether you're a religious person or not, a reverent frame of mind can help your health.

Whether you pray more than a preacher, or you find inner peace through some secular practice, here are some suggestions to help during tough times.

• Throw your feelings "out there." Rodale.com advisor Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, suggests sharing your feelings with a higher power—even if that means “the universe” or a wise, caring part of yourself. "Prayer and meditation are wonderful ways to allow yourself to open to something greater than yourself, which helps you feel less like you need to carry the whole burden on your own, he says.

• Tap into the other type of prayer. Often, you may find yourself asking for good health while you pray. But showing gratitude can also pay dividends to your well being, too. So instead of focusing on asking for things while you pray, take time to say thanks for all the things that made you happy that day. And thank the people involved, too. Psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, former president of the American Psychological Association found that paying a gratitude visit to someone who has made a difference in your life—and thanking them for that—can make you feel better for up to a year.