Updated: Feb 8, 2021
Spirituality is often seen as a highly subjective and a difficult construct to describe and its definitions traverse finding the goal in life, experiencing a transcendent dimension that brings meaning to one’s existence, and developing the capacity to experience the sacred. Spirituality is also defined as knowing who you are and understanding your highest spiritual qualities and attributes such as love, peace, purity and bliss.
Spirituality is often used interchangeably with religion but has some distinct differences and alignment in both concepts. Whereas spirituality focuses on mystical, ethereal experiences, the essence of life, creativeness, new age beliefs, and often an aversion against clergy, religion is associated with the bond between man and a ‘greater-than-human’ power expressed through rituals and dogma that help an individual connect to such a power in their day-to-day living (van Dierendonck & Mohan, 2006). An extrinsic orientation on religiousness focuses on the external; using religion to “provide security, comfort, status, or social support”. People with an intrinsic orientation, on the other hand, view it as an internal posturing that focuses on becoming one with the sacred which ultimately reflects in an external posture of living unselfishly and showing compassion.
The main themes of spirituality revolve around efforts to assign meaning, purpose, belief structure and faith, relationship and connectedness with self, others, nature, and a higher being (Lifshitz, Nimrod, & Bachner, 2019).
Managing stress is about taking charge of your thoughts, emotions, schedule, and the approach you take in dealing with problems. Stress is the body's instinctive response to cues from our external environment as well as to one's inner thoughts and feeling. Stress arises from trying to control uncontrollable things.
Many factors affect how we respond to stress, including personality traits, gender, age and spirituality. Spirituality produces a resilient quality that has evidenced an ability to cope better with stress. Research conducted in an Indian university found spirituality and stress to be inversely proportionate to each other; where spirituality was high, stress in respondents was low and vice versa (Yadav & Khanna, 2014).
Resilience is defined as the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress or an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It is also defined as the measure of how much restraint (over obstacles, setbacks, barriers or limitations) one can muster in order to obtain a desired outcome.
Spirituality helps in addressing stress through the following ways:
One element through which spirituality builds resilience is through perception. The walk of personalised faith informs our worldview; the lens through which we perceive and judge the world and its happenings. This is important to acknowledge because often what triggers stress is not the threat itself but our personal perceptions of that ‘threat’ and the resultant hormonal reactions that occur in response to that perception. Our worldviews and perceptions are crucial to how we interpret stressful circumstances.
The worldviews of two people may lead them to interpret the same situation differently so that what produces stress in one may not necessarily trigger stress in the other or may but to a much lesser or higher magnitude. This is the personalised dimension of spirituality and forms as one engages personally and experientially with their Faith and making personalised meaning and giving personalised expression of its principles and doctrines.
What informs how you view, filter and assess the happenings around you? Feeling powerless against the negative reports that come our way can lead to experiencing high-stress levels. On the other hand, resting on and in the word of God gives one an assurance that quickens our spiritual, mental and physical ability to respond and mount a comeback against what an initial stress response may produce in us. The word of God assures us of the power available in God to withstand all. Consider these scriptures:
Philippians 4:13 (NKJV): “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Isaiah 43:2 (GNT): “When you pass through deep waters, I will be with you; your troubles will not overwhelm you. When you pass through fire, you will not be burned; the hard trials that come will not hurt you.”
Psalms 29:11 (AMPC): “The Lord will give [unyielding and impenetrable] strength to His people; the Lord will bless His people with peace.”
Jeremiah 29:11 (AMPC): “For I know the thoughts and plans that I have for you, says the Lord, thoughts and plans for welfare and peace and not for evil, to give you hope in your final outcome.”
Scriptures build resolve in the spirit, a resilience of will, an assurance that we are well able to cope with the daily difficulties and stresses that come our way because God, by His Spirit, is with us, in us, around us and for us to empower us in our daily dealings.
Isaiah 26:3 (AMPC): “You will guard him and keep him in perfect and constant peace whose mind [both its inclination and its character] is stayed on You, because he commits himself to You, leans on You, and hopes confidently in You.”
This scripture alludes that the consistent meditation on and belief in the word of God produces a shield of peace that garrisons the heart and mind against the tendency to be overrun by the chaos that comes our way through our trust in His promise to be “our present help” (Psalms 46:1; Psalms 63:7; Hebrews 4:16; Isaiah 41:13). This trust produces both proactive and reactive responses and resilience that revives and invigorates the distressed spirit against stressors, especially recurring ones. The precepts and doctrines of our faith enable us to process life’s happenings through the filter
The Christian faith acknowledges in Proverbs 18:14 that having a resilient spirit sustains us through difficult situations.
Proverbs 18:14 (AMP) “The strong spirit of a man sustains him in bodily pain or trouble, but a weak and broken spirit who can raise up or bear?”
Proverbs 18:14 (MSG) “A healthy spirit conquers adversity but what can you do when the spirit is crushed?”
Proverbs 18:14 (GNB) “Your will to live can sustain you when you are sick, but if you lose it, your last hope is gone.”
What do you feed your spirit? How have you been conditioning your spirit so that it can sustain you? Does your spirit have the strength of will to survive the shocks of our era? The sustenance a spirit provides is dependent on its strength and health. This brings to bear the importance of consistently building on the strength of our spirit by the word.
Romans 10:17 (GNT): “So then, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes through preaching Christ.”
Think of it this way: designers and engineers design for safety with worst-case scenarios, a “one-in-a-hundred-year” event, factors of safety with which they calculate potential risks and design for the safety of assets…. The factor of safety with which we build our hearts and minds and establish peace during chaos is the word of God. Shore up strength in the word!
The teachings of the Christian faith on the in-dwelling presence of the Holy Spirit gives us double assurance of a greater power with us, empowering us and guiding our way. The presence of the Holy Spirit as our guide shores up our spirits even when our human spirits lack the strength to uphold us.
1 John 4:4 (NLT): “But you belong to God my dear children. You have already won a victory… because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world.”
Romans 8:26a (NKJV): “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses…”
Zephaniah 3:17 (NKJV): “The Lord your God in your midst, The Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.”
Seeing ourselves through the word of God and finding assurance in His love, care, His comforting presence, counsel and intent for us helps us shape our identity and define our goals and purpose in Him. The process of personal goal orientation that is rooted in an intrinsic sense of meaning and purpose is strongly associated with mental health and wellbeing (Wagani & Colucci, 2018).
A personalised faith walk can lead one to make personal lifestyle decisions to honour/observe certain codes of the spiritual, religious and/or personal consecration pursuit such as the abstinence from alcohol, smoking, late-night partying, unbridled sexual behaviours, certain foods choices etc, all of which may make one naturally predisposed to stress.
Galatians 6:10 (KJV): “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”
The social and inter-personal relationships that we establish in faith-based communities help us build our social networks as we partake in and engage on issues of service, morality, culture, religious expressions etc. (Wagani & Colucci, 2018). Our faith-based communities provide crucial social support that helps us cope through stress. Participation in faith-based activities outside stress environments may provide the needed reprieve that allows the mind and spirit to reset while being refreshed in refocused endeavours.
Pastoral care available in faith-based communities provides much-needed counsel and support that sustains us through stressful periods.
Galatians 6:2 (KJV): “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”
Job 4:4 (GNT): “When someone stumbled, weak and tired, your words encouraged him to stand.”
Job’s friend testified that he was the point of encouragement for others through their hard and stressful situations. The tenets of the Christians faith encourage us, in the spirit of compassion, to stand with and support one another through trying times. Having a listening ear, peers and spiritual leadership who stand with you in prayer and offer various kinds of support, eases our stress levels.
Philippians 4:6 (NKJV): “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God;”
The Christian faith admonishes us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer is an avenue for submitting our burdens and problems to God in prayer. Prayer requires humility in acknowledging that we are unburdening our deepest hurts, fears and failures and receiving His power, strength, wisdom, clarity and counsel to be better at life, sets us in a calm that diminishes the impact of stress and stressors in our lives. The very belief and knowledge that we are being heard in the expression of our difficulties and are being helped and uplifted spiritually and physically, produces a calming effect on the mind.
John 15:7 (ESV): “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
Psalms 34:17 (ESV): “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.”
1 Peter 5:7 (ESV): “Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
Psalms 55:17 (ESV): “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.”
Prayer uplifts and calms and produces a relaxation response that inhibits the release of the hormones norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol that are released in response to stress which over time compromise the immune system (https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/prayer). The calming effect and sense of peace prayer elicits in effect strengthen the immune system. Prayer is also a medically accepted alternate therapy for stress management as meditation and exercise.
Meditation ushers the body and mind into a state of relaxation. It is a natural quality of the mind to be trained to pay attention and focus for long periods on that which has been defined to bring comfort to the mind. This mental and physical posturing frees up significant mental and physical energies and provides the mind reprieve from focusing on that which causes distress thereby giving the mind room to recover, reset and refresh to face life.
What do you think about? What do you give your mind to? What do you allow your mind to dwell on and why?
The Christian faith actively encourages us to focus and assure our hearts on the good works of God, the wonders of His doings, the wonderful promises in His word, on the testimonies we and those around us have encountered; all these to fuel hope and faith to keep pressing on.
Psalms 143:5 (KJV): “I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.”
Philippians 4:8 (KJV): “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Proverbs 4:20-22 (KJV): “My son, pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to one’s whole body.”
Research shows meditation be an effective solution to chronic stress disorders and cause significant reductions in systolic blood pressure in those who actively practice it. Meditation scientifically improves neurobiology by causing reductions in cortisol and norepinephrine levels, increase in dopamine and melatonin levels whilst modulating serotonin levels in the body (Esch, 2014).
Spirituality is said to flourish post midlife; meaning more people assign increased importance to spirituality in their later years, from late-middle to older adulthood (Lifshitz et al., 2019). Stress, on the other hand, can have debilitating effects on physical and mental health, no matter the age of an individual. It is necessary to give attention to stressors in our environment and put them in proper perspective. Actively engaging our faith and spirituality has immense benefits to easing our minds through the roughest of storms but to enjoy these benefits, we must actively engage our hearts and minds at all levels in what we believe and live it out daily.
Rev. Nana Yaa Nsiah-Appiah
PhD Student, Civil and Building Engineering