4 Underrated Ways This PhD Uses Spirituality To Bolster Mental Health
Spirituality and the brain: What's the connection? We'll admit, the neuroscience has been a bit limited (even though research has gotten closer to mapping the specific brain circuit responsible for spirituality), but Lisa Miller, Ph.D., an award-winning researcher in spirituality and psychology and the author of The Awakened Brain, is on the case.
Specifically, she combed through MRI scans of participants who have struggled with feelings of sadness (blues) to assess whether a sense of spirituality had any effect on their mental well-being—and, frankly, the results are astounding1. "People who [had] a spiritual response to suffering showed entirely different brains," she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. "They showed not thinning but thickening across the regions of perception and reflection, the parietal, precuneus, and occipital [regions]."
In other words, a sense of spirituality can have a huge impact on your brain health and mood. The question becomes: How do you incorporate spirituality into your everyday life? According to Miller, a deep sense of awareness is not tied to religion, per se—rather, the ability to connect spiritually is innate within us. "We are all born with this capacity to see into the deeper nature of life, but the muscle has been left to atrophy in the great majority of people in our country," she says.
Below, she offers her personal tips to flex those spiritual muscles:
She focuses on prayer.
"Prayer, above all else, opens up our direct relationship with God, the loving guidance spirit in and through life," says Miller. Of course, prayer looks different for everyone: Maybe it's writing down your thoughts into a journal, or perhaps you pray out loud. No matter what you're comfortable with, the key is identifying some sort of higher power to tap into your own spiritual awareness. That way, Miller says, you can reopen your eyes and reflect on life more deeply.
"This is absolutely real," Miller adds. "It has a name, it has a language, and it is yours."
She interacts with nature.
Yes, the very act of walking in nature has mental health benefits. (Studies have even shown that chemicals called phytoncides in some trees can reduce stress hormones and lower anxiousness2.) But Miller takes that nature walk a step further: "Don't just soak in the beauty, but view and open up [your] sense of being in a deep relationship with nature," she notes.
Let nature guide you—if a tree is somehow telling you to turn left, trust that intuition and make the turn. If you see a duck with its baby, reflect on how that relationship relates to a mother-child dynamic. The point is to connect with what Miller calls "the sense of unit of awareness that comes from when we're in nature."
She reflects on the universal human experience.
It's a phrase you might have heard spiritual leaders discuss before: We are one. "In our deep awareness, we can access with clarity that there is a unit of field of life, a common set of human experience," says Miller. Connecting with this sense of common humanity, she adds, "allows us to be close to people with whom we ardently disagree."
However, it also has profound effects on mental well-being—take self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D.'s findings, for example: When participants wrote a paragraph of mindfulness, a paragraph of common humanity, and a paragraph of kind words once a day for a total of seven days, they had a significant improvement in feelings of sadness for three months and an increase in happiness for six months3. Acknowledging the oneness of humankind is a significant part of that, and incorporating this component into your everyday life can have remarkable effects.
She leads with the heart.
"The heart is the instrument of deep revelation, and the head is our gift of implementation," says Miller. "We need both, but we've got to get the order right."
Sounds great in theory, but how do you actually lead with the heart? Well, the first step is identifying when you're stuck in your head, and Miller shares that she faces a few symptoms: I ruminate [and say,] 'I've got to get it done. I've got to get it done,'" she explains. "Another symptom [is when] I find myself getting anxious and stressed." When she experiences these feelings, she immediately knows she's leading with her head. "I have now had this happen enough times that I see the red light," she explains.
She then engages in a moment of deep reflection—be it prayer, nature, meditation, et al.—to ground herself and allow her heart to guide her. Miller is an expert, of course, so this may take a bit more practice for the rest of us. "I view this as a journey," she says. "There's always an opportunity to deepen the connection to listen more to the heart."
The ability to spiritually connect is innate within us—we just might need some training to flex the muscles. With Miller's simple tips, you can incorporate spirituality into your everyday life and perhaps bolster your mental well-being as a result.