How Spirituality Affects Stress Levels
By Tanja Gardner
Take a moment to close your eyes and think about what a spiritual person looks like. Whether you see them as sitting lotus-style in saffron robes or speaking emphatically from a pulpit, I'd bet one thing you won't see them as is 'stressed'. Relaxed, serene, beatific... These are all adjectives we associate with the super-spiritual. But stressed? Kind of defeats the purpose of all that spirituality, doesn't it?
I'm going to take a moment here to make the all-important distinction between religion and spirituality. Different people have different definitions of each, but for the purposes of this article, it's important to be clear about what I mean by each term. A religion is a codified set of beliefs and practices shared by adherents. Spirituality, by contrast, is about an individual's relationship with Spirit (however they might see it) and their connection with their own spiritual aspect. Please note that the two concepts can co-exist, but that religion doesn't have to be spiritual, and equally, spirituality doesn't need to be religious.
In this article, I want to focus on spirituality, rather than religion. If you do follow an organized religion, feel free to apply the information to your own spiritual path. If not, I invite you to keep in mind the difference between religion and spirituality as you read. This is because there's a great deal of evidence that a healthy spiritual belief system can both help lessen the impact some of our stressors have on us, and deal with the consequences of our stress responses. The first half of this article covers some of the suggested reasons for this, while the second explores how we can use this link to help with our stress management.
Most stressors seem bigger and more difficult to deal with if we're feeling isolated and as though we re dealing with them alone. Knowing that we belong to and can connect with a group of people who care, and who can offer solace, strength and possibly even solutions, can do much to offset that feeling. And interestingly enough, that sense of belonging doesn't necessarily have to be to a group of people. If we see the natural world as something we can interact with, or Spirit or our Higher Selves as beings with whom we can talk, then they can become part of our support just as much as actual people could.
In the thousand and one things we all have to do to keep up with the demands work, study, family, and friends; problems that would seem fairly minor if they attacked us one-by-one can seem unbearably huge. At such times, believing in something bigger than ourselves (or bigger than the day-to-day self who has to deal with all of these problems) can sometimes help to shrink our stressors back down to something approaching a manageable size.
It's a hard thing to accept when we're going through tough periods, but it's not the things that happen to us that upset us. What upsets us is the meanings we give those events. For example, if I've just failed a job interview, it's not actually failing the interview that's upset me it's all the things I've made it mean. Perhaps, in my mind, it means I ll never get a job, that I'm just no good at interviews, that I'll always be broke, or even that I'm a useless person in all areas of my life. Whatever it might be, unless I had my heart set on that specific job, it's unlike to just be the interview results. When this happens, a sense of spirituality can help me to look for positive meanings in seemingly negative events enabling me to ask what I can learn, or how I can grow stronger, instead of asking why it's always me that gets dumped on.
Space and Stillness
Something most spiritual systems emphasize is the need for time spent by ourselves in quiet and stillness. In this still space, our minds - weary of thoughts rushing around at breakneck speed can find rest. The time alone can be spent meditating, praying, or just listening and appreciating what is there around and within us in that given moment. The form doesn't matter whatever is right for you is what's right for you. It's the peace and respite we're accessing the simple time out that makes this so helpful for stress management.
These are just four of the possible suggested ways that developing a personal spirituality can help in keeping our stress at optimum levels. Now, we'll begin to explore how those who've never thought about the spiritual side of their lives might get started. It's important to state here that spirituality is highly individual, and what's true to one person's values may not be to another.
It's also important to restate that spirituality and religion aren't the same thing, although religion can certainly be spiritual. Some people are more at ease exploring spirituality within the constraints of an organized religion or an established spiritual path, while others are uncomfortable accepting someone else's decision about what is and isn't spiritual. The good news is that it doesn't matter which category you fall into. If you're interested in developing your spiritual side, it isn't difficult to get started.
organized Religions / Established Paths
Those who already find themselves drawn in one particular spiritual direction have a huge advantage over the rest of us when it comes to stress management. Established paths have the benefit of allowing you to connect with others who share the same values and beliefs as you do, and can give you access to a strong support network. If you find yourself even slightly interested in the teachings of a particular religion, research it, and see if what you discover makes sense to you and the way you see the world.
An excellent place to start researching online is Belief.net. This site draws together information on all kinds of paths from around the globe – from Christianity to Confucianism, and Earth-Based Spiritualities to Islam. There are links to sacred texts, 'Ask the Expert' forums and discussion groups, and suggestions about where to find more information. Other places to start looking include your local library or bookstore.
As you learn more about paths that interest you, ask yourself whether they support you and give you tools to deal with your stressors. If so, bring them into your belief system. If not, move on. Your spirituality is something that is personal to you, and the only rules are those you choose to be bound by. Investigate–explore–experiment. You don't have to 'get it right' on the first go.
Finding your own Way
Investigating different religions and spiritual paths is fine for some - but what about those who haven't found any spiritual direction that appeals, or who've had bad experiences with religion and feel no desire to go off down that path again? If religion leaves you cold, take comfort in the fact you don't need anyone else's thoughts or beliefs to be spiritual. This is about your own personal relationship with Spirit, and what's right for you is what's right for you.
The question, of course, is how you can find out what's right for you if you don't want to follow an established path. Perhaps the best way to start is to simply take time to regularly be alone. Find a comfortable space - perhaps outside, in the natural world, or a favourite room or chair indoors. If there are things you associate with spirituality - a burning candle - lit incense - a vase of flowers, by all means, bring those into your space with you. Some people find it helpful to play relaxing music - others prefer silence. Set up your space to work for you, and then just allow yourself to sit and be for a while. Feel your breath as it moves in and out of your lungs. Look at the world around you and see what you can notice. What do you hear? What do you smell? What can you feel on your skin? Some people find it helps to have a notebook or a journal with them - to write either as they sit, or afterward. Others prefer to simply sit.
As you notice what's happening within and around you, here and now, in the moment, you'll find that your stressors (which aren't there with you) start to become less important. They're still there, outside of your quiet space, and they'll still need to be dealt with - but they're not with you right in that moment. And the time you're taking to be still and connect with yourself allows you to come back to them in a stronger position to deal with them later.
You may also feel, as you do this for a while, that you start thinking about investigating other ways of developing your spirituality. Go ahead - see where you're led - read - try things out. The worst that can happen is that it doesn't work for you, so you try something else. The rewards, in terms of your increased wellbeing and immunity to stress will be well worth hanging in there until you find your right path.