Spirituality is any personal practice that connects you with a greater good and sheds light on your true feelings and beliefs, and it looks a little different for everyone. It's what you do on days when everything around you seems like it's spiraling out of control. It's what you turn to when nothing else is left.
And in addition to lauding psychological benefits, spiritual practices like meditation, mindfulness, and visualization can have physical manifestations, too. But can it play a role in healing from illness? That's the question we posed to a pool of doctors. Here's what they said:
1. Meditation can be the last part of the puzzle when you're doing everything else right.
The power of regular and consistent meditation repeatedly surprises me when working with patients. Even though I know all the research behind the benefits of meditation, it is still exciting to see a simple act transform a person's health. I have seen firsthand how effective it can be when a patient is doing everything else right. They are eating a whole food, plant-based diet and exercising daily but still struggle with fatigue, hormone imbalances, etc. Once they start meditating, it's like their body gets a signal that it's OK to relax and heal.
2. A familiar spiritual practice can provide comfort and reduce stress.
I encourage patients navigating illness to explore spiritual practices they are comfortable with or familiar with from their upbringing, whether it's attending church, synagogue, or temple or practicing meditative exercises like yoga and dance. There is no doubt that patients find great comfort and calm in these practices, but I suspect they also help with stress reduction. I personally find music, whether it's music from my Jewish heritage like Shlomo Carlebach, kirtan like Krishna Das and Girish, or even spirited gospel, to be a great rock and resource.
—Dr. Joel Kahn, cardiologist
3. Positive thoughts are incredibly empowering.
Prayer, or speaking to a higher power, can promote wellness both via a higher power's assistance as well as the belief that a higher power is assisting. Visualization, or imagining yourself being healthy and functioning as you desire, is another popular strategy I've seen boost healing. Affirmations, or repeating a positive mantra, is also a popular approach. Instead of focusing on worry or catastrophizing ("Things will only get worse"), affirmations help clients focus on what they want. This allows them to feel empowered and take the steps they need to in order to assist with healing, such as doing their physical therapy.
4. Mindfulness can enhance our sense of purpose.
By definition, functional medicine addresses all the pieces of the health puzzle to get to the root cause of illness. People can eat perfectly, take all the best supplements, and exercise often, but there is still a nonphysical aspect of health that we often overlook in our secular world. I see on an hourly basis the impact that mind-body and spiritual components have on healing. My patients who have active, vibrant spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation tend to move through their health journey with more grace and purpose. It's because of this power of prayer I have witnessed that I encourage all of my patients, even if they are not spiritual, to at least integrate mindfulness meditation into their lives.
5. If you will something to work, it might just work.
There is no question that mindfulness, prayer, or spirituality can decrease markers of stress, depression, and anxiety. I strongly believe that when you want something to work—for example, therapy or medication—it will work to some extent. In medicine, we call this the placebo effect. If people think they are getting a medicine that will heal them, they automatically start to get some sort of benefit from it. While I would not recommend that someone only pray or meditate to heal a disease, I do believe that this can help enhance the healing process.
—Dr. Amy Shah, immunologist
6. Meditation has physical effects on our bodies.
Spiritual experiences absolutely activate brain reward circuits for those who are spiritual, and they can lead to increased feelings of contentment, satisfaction, and joy. That is why it can be very important for physicians to acknowledge and discuss a patient's spiritual beliefs, regardless of their own.
I have seen (and felt!) many benefits from regular meditation. Studies consistently demonstrate that mindfulness meditation can alleviate pain, improve memory and cognition, increase restorative sleep, and has even been demonstrated to increase the volume of brain tissue in the hippocampus. It can be very healing when made a part of a daily routine.
—Dr. Ilene Ruhoy, neurologist
7. People have called on energy healing for centuries.
My patients rely and often depend on their spirituality to help them with their health. From meditation to help with weight loss to prayer and prayer groups to fight cancer, spirituality and its role in medicine is an integral part of my practice. Disease, according to our ancestors, was seen as disconnection from our spirit. Thus, reconnecting to our root, our core, and our universe was seen as essential in healing. I am often at a crossroads at times with my patients, when I know that their healing is more dependent on healing their spirit rather than their physical body. I look then to my network of energy healers to help me help them!
8. There is no side effect of meditation.
I credit my regular meditation practice with helping to resolve my own cervical cancer (CIN3, a neat abbreviation for the messier sounding "carcinoma in situ stage 3 with glandular involvement") when I was in medical school. When I meditated, I visualized the cancer leaving, my immune system winning, and most of all my bad energy turning to positive energy. I'd seen how, in the past, meditation had improved my sense of calm, confidence, and happiness in general. I practiced meditation leading up to my surgery and afterward. My doctors were shocked when they saw that in just three weeks, my CIN3 had literally disappeared. Studies have proved that meditation can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and reduce cortisol, which in turn increases immune function and decreases blood pressure, blood sugar, and even weight gain. It is clear that meditation has powerful biochemical effects on the body. Meditation is free from side effects, unlike the medications many doctors prescribe to reach the same goals.
9. When we feel everything, we are active participants in our health journey.
I may not believe that suffering is avoidable, but I do believe that healing and redemption are available to every human, if only we have the courage to dive into the deep end and milk adversity for all it's worth. I'm not suggesting that we employ the "spiritual bypass" and use our spiritual principles to avoid feeling the pain, fear, anger, frustration, and grief that accompany such traumas. By all means, feel what you feel—and feel it all the way. Don't skip it. Feel it. But let the energy of those painful feelings move. Then...even if it's slow and awkward...dance! Pray. Meditate. Rejoice with your whole heart.