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Exploring the link between Spirituality and Mental Health

If you are a regular user of the YU app, you may have noticed that one of the eight life aspects we ask you to choose from is spirituality. Most people immediately think about religion when they hear this word, and given that there is absolutely nothing religious about You Understood, you may wonder why we include it. That’s because it’s a vital component of a balanced life, and while the rituals and customs associated with organised religion do constitute aspects of spirituality, it actually goes far beyond that.

What is spirituality and why is it so vital? Spirituality is defined as a connection with a reality outside of the physical individual, and the ways in which humans seek purpose, meaning, hope and support. It is the suggestion that there is more to life than just the sensory and physical level, and that there is something greater that connects everything together. It doesn’t refer just to religion because it applies across cultures, languages and societies, and transcends the differences that people have created between themselves.

It’s important because humans are naturally curious, and at some point in our lives, we will all question why things are the way they are, why we are here, and what our purpose is. If you don’t have a way to address these in a manner that makes sense to you, you will begin to feel discontent and disjointed from your reality, and you may start to wonder what the point of everything is. Left unchecked, these feelings can spiral into anxiety, hopelessness and depression.

In an attempt to stop this and give ourselves direction and optimism, we seek out answers from something we perceive to be more than us, and we do this in different ways, according to our personal values and beliefs:

  • Religion – the organised rituals, customs and practices that people engage with en-masse. There is usually a religious leader who guides the congregation in worship and prayer, based on the teachings of religious texts. Different religions believe in different higher powers (God, Allah, Buddha etc) but they all represent the same essential role as creator, protector and judge of humanity

  • Connection with nature – many people fulfil their spiritual needs through nature. A connection to the earth and wider universe can provide the same empowerment and solace as belief in a higher being, without the necessity of going to church or following specific rules

  • Meditation – this has been practised for thousands of years across all different cultures and is becoming more mainstream. The act of focusing on controlled breathing, mantras or parts of the body help to bring you to a state of heightened awareness and perception

  • Alternative therapies – some people find comfort and faith in a range of therapies that might be considered ‘alternative’ such as reiki, acupuncture, healing crystals etc. While not conventional, these therapies can offer the same belief in an external power that exists to guide and protect.

There is a commonality between all of the different ways in which people find spirituality, and that is a feeling of being at peace while also having comfort and support in challenging times, and a feeling of gratitude and validation during times of achievement and positivity, all of which can help people deal with anxiety, stress and depression. Faith can be a source of strength that helps people be more resilient and better able to cope with life’s challenges, and can help foster hope and optimism for a brighter future. This belief in something higher than oneself can be both empowering and soothing, and can form a very important part of an individual’s identity, helping them to achieve balance, meaning and purpose.

Seeking spirituality can often result in a sense of community and belonging with others who believe the same as you, offering a social support that might not otherwise exist.

However, spirituality itself can be a source of tension and distress. If your personal values do not align with the spiritual circumstances you find yourself in, it can cause internal conflict that can be difficult to resolve. For example, if you grew up in a devoutly religious family that held very conservative values, this may clash with your own experience of the world, and you may not be able to combine the two. Spirituality is fundamentally an individual experience that doesn’t require strict rules, and if there is pressure to force those beliefs into something structured and formal, it can result in distinctly un-spiritual feelings.

It’s also the case that some forms of spirituality may be considered alternative, and are therefore treated with suspicion and contempt by others who deride them for being different. For those who practice these beliefs, this can be hurtful, uncomfortable and even discriminatory.

People may also use their beliefs as a way of burying their head in the sand about situations they find difficult – instead of addressing problems, you might say ‘everything happens for a reason’, thereby passing the responsibility for the issue onto someone, or something, else. This perspective can seem like freeing yourself of stress, but actually it doesn’t help resolve the situation in the long term, and could ultimately be detrimental or even harmful if persisted over time.

Humans have a desire to connect with something more than themselves, and finding that spiritual connection that speaks to you as an individual, whether that’s a structured religion or simply appreciating the beauty of nature and how it links you to everything else, can enrich your life and help you feel balanced and whole. But it’s important to incorporate it as part of your wider persona, rather than rely on it as a solution to problems – it is not a fix in itself, but rather helps your inner self make sense of everything around you, and gives you the belief and resolve to face life head on.

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