(modified article I wrote in Mid-Hudson valley Health magazine, Page 16 , 2002)
The Relationship between Spiritual, Emotional and Physical Health
By Perry Sherman Ph.D. (Dr. Sherman practices with CCAhope, P.C. Delmar)
What is spiritual health? Depending upon whom you ask, you may receive many different answers, from oneness with the universe to a connection with nature to a relationship with God the Creator. The very term conjures up thoughts of something deeply personal and Individual, and suggests something very difficult to define.
However, studies of various aspects of spiritual health and religious beliefs and practices have consistently found a powerful correlation with happiness, physical and emotional health and well-being. In fact, one of the largest studies (Myers , American Psychologist, Jan. 2000) found that Americans attending church more than once a week were nearly twice as likely to report being very happy than those attending less than monthly or those with no church affiliation. Studies, reported atthe August 1999 American Psychological Association meeting in Boston, and summarized in Time Magazine and elsewhere, show that prayer improves disease recovery rates and outcomes. Prayer positively affects
not only people prayed for, but those who pray also benefit emotionally and physically. Even reductionistic behavioral surveys and measurable disease recovery rates demonstrate the benefits of a strong spiritual faith.
What about clinical psychotherapeutic observations ?
Exactly how does faith in God improve mental health?
Some clinical observations add depth to these statistics. The most prominent name in group therapy , Irvin Yalom, observes how a strong religious faith contributes enormously to emotional and psychological health. In his book, Existential Psychotherapy, he lists what might be called the existential common denominators of humanity. He observes
That clients in any psychotherapy for a significant length of time, will wrestle with a few core universal existential dilemmas. When Dr. Yalom spoke about his life and experiences at the May 2000 Evolution of Psychotherapy conference in Anaheim, CA, he delineated these life Issues.
The first concerns death. Death influences life. We are finite, those we love are finite, and everything we do is finite. When we decide where to live, what career to enter, what college to attend, whether to have a family, where we will spend our time, whom to marry, and any other decision, we necessarily eliminate all the contrary choices available for
that time and place. This is why many people have difficulty making some important decisions, because every decision involves a loss. Looking forward causes young people anxiety. Looking backward causes older people regrets. We can only live our life once. Judith Viorst, in her book, “Necessary Losses,” describes a universal struggle with the losses in life. Death is the greatest and most profound loss in any life; it ends it. We deny death, we try to ignore its reality, reframe it as “passing away,” “reincarnating,” or try to argue to ourselves that it is something positive, just a part of life. But it is not. It ends our life and limits us, and we feel this limitation, this pending termination of all opportunity at the bottom of our souls.
The second concerns meaning. Dr. Errol Leifer, a brilliant professor of mine at the California School of Professional Psychology – Fresno, noted that, even if it was wrong, there can be no more potent and self-enhancing belief than the belief that we are serving the God of the universe. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and Nazi concentration can survivor, observed human nature, good and bad, in the face of even the most extreme suffering (“Man’s Search for Meaning”). He observed that prisoners who believed and clung to a meaning for their lives were able to retain their human dignity and endure the suffering. Frankl knew when another prisoner had lost the conviction of his purpose for existence, because he often simply gave up and lay down to die.
The need for meaning is so strongly wired into our brains, that we will create meaning, even perverse meaning or destructive meaning, rather than live in a meaningless world. This explains why children who are abused commonly blame themselves for the abuse. Abused spouses will blame themselves for provoking the abuse. Patients routinely
assign a reason for suffering, whether known or not. Even those philosophers who believe there is no ultimate meaning, take the promulgation of “the truth,” meaning their view of the cosmos, the purpose or meaning of their own lives. Irvin Yalom, himself an atheistic existentialist, said at the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference; “we have a difficult task, because we must not only create the meaning for our lives, but we must also forget that it is we who created it.” Yalom’s description fits the definition of a psychological defense when reality is distorted to protect our emotional well-being. We don’t have to engage in such mental and psychological gymnastics if meaning is truly available.
The third concerns love. We long for unconditional love. As long a we experience love as conditional upon our own performance, we will live encumbered, trapped, driven, frenetic or resigned lives. Many live on the treadmill of performance, because the alternative is to fail and find that those who love us love us because of what we can do for them, not just because of who we are. Although we want to believe we have the control to guarantee our acceptance, by others and by God, deep down we know we don’t. We do not have control over others. And to the extent we do, we know their love is tentative and conditional. In fact, it’s not really “love” then at all. It’s just conditional affection.
Most religions are themselves, in fact, based on “conditional love”. If you follow the 8-fold path, if your karma is good enough, if your good deeds outweigh your bad, etc., you enter Nirvana, heaven, openness. Living because we are loved is very different than living to be loved.
Unfortunately, we are capable of generalizing past experiences with people to all present and future relationships. In analytic psychology this is called “object relations.” If we experienced our father as angry and critical, we expect other men to be angry and critical. If our mother was overprotective and smothering, we expect women, and perhaps all people with whom we become intimate, to engulf us and destroy our identity. Many other examples could be given of carrying early relational experiences into current relationships. These patterns are hard to break.
So it is in our relationship with God. Often, people will expect God to behave as they have experienced others, especially parents, to behave. To become spiritually healthy, when you have had unhealthy experiences with others, can be difficult. We may feel God is excruciatingly condemning if our parents were condemning, or lacking Strength, undependable and weak, if our patents were particularly lax and undisciplined.
From a Christian perspective, Christ Jesus provides an answer like no other to the problem of relationships, death, and love. In the words of J. R.R. Tolkein in his “Essay on Fairy Stories,” “there is no story.. .which men would rather find was true” than the story of the resurrection of Christ.
Many have come to believe the resurrection because it touches the deepest needs of the Soul. Through the experiences of Christ as detailed in the Bible, He provides perspective and meaning to suffering. The suffering of this life is put into context. Even our own suffering takes on the profound meaning of fellowship with Him who suffered. Isaiah 53:3 reads, “He was acquainted with grief and sorrow.” This relationship to God, like any other relationship, is built on shared experience of suffering. The strongest of bonds are forged in the fires of tribulation. Paradoxically, the most spiritually and emotionally healthy are those drawn to God through their suffering. Without spiritual health, we respond to suffering with superficiality, denial or bitterness.
Improving your emotional health and the health of your relationships, and especially the internal “objects” or images of yourself in relationship to others , can improve the experience of your relationship to God. Sometimes this is done with spiritual leaders, friends or others. Sometimes it is done with a trained professional familiar with spiritual issues. Also, experiencing a healthier, (unconditionally loving, strong and dependable God) relationship with God can improve our relationships to others. How this happens is a topic for another article, but it begins by “seeking and you shall find.” This process is individual, but requires taking God seriously and being open to change. This is the beginning of the process. “The fear, or respect, of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9: 10
(Dr. Sherman desires to clarify the necessity of reality based personal belief. “I believe that mental, emotional and spiritual health includes being reality based. Perhaps we can be ignorant, delusional and happy, but not connected to reality. One very large aspect of true mental health is being reality based. It is important in the spiritual and religious realm not to believe to feel good, but to believe something that is reality based and true. I think that the historical event as well documented as the resurrection makes belief in Jesus Christ and what He claims, reality based. So much so that one of the two people to put Harvard Law school on the map, Simon Greenleaf, who was professor of evidence, and who wrote several texts on use of evidence in the court room still In use today in many law schools, came to believe in the resurrection because of his evaluation of the evidence. “)