The world is full of stories from people who endured much pain but somehow turned their suffering into purpose. Consider Jason Wachob, who founded the successful holistic living website MindBodyGreen after yoga helped him avoid back surgery. Or these inspirational Instagram personalities who overcame or live with tremendous suffering and somehow found a deeper meaning.
A common thread in many of these stories is the power of spirituality and its ability to help people find meaning in difficulty and the strength to carry on.
Having a higher connection can turn pain into purpose and struggle into connection
Spirituality means something different to everyone. For one person, it could be attending church or synagogue. For another, it could be taking a yoga class or meditating alone or with a group of fellow devotees.
At its core, spirituality is a belief in something larger than us. Spirituality gives us the power to turn our burdens into lessons that ultimately enrich our lives.
A kind universe or an unkind one?
One of the main decisions people make about the world, whether through spirituality or not, is about the underlying nature of the universe. It is a kind world? A place where misdeeds are punished? Or perhaps neither? Perhaps you believe it’s completely random.
Scientists have discovered that these abstract beliefs have very real implications for both physical and mental health. Research from the University of Missouri found that people who believe their pain is a punishment from the universe experience worse discomfort. Study author Brick Johnstone says:
“In general, the more religious or spiritual you are, the healthier you are, which makes sense…But for some individuals, even if they have even the smallest degree of negative spirituality—basically, when individuals believe they’re ill because they’ve done something wrong and God is punishing them—their health is worse.”
Are the benefits similar for religious and spiritual people?
Other research has come to similar conclusions. A study in the journal Pain Research and Management found that people with a strong religious practice, including regular worship, reported lower levels of chronic pain and fatigue than non-religious people.
The same protective benefits weren’t found for spiritual people who didn’t attend a place of worship regularly. The study said:
“Individuals with chronic pain and fatigue were more likely to use prayer and seek spiritual support as a coping method than the general population.”
Researchers said having strong spiritual beliefs might lead people to develop stronger social connections and better health habits like exercise. Spiritual people may also be happier, which influences chemical pathways in the brain that could reduce discomfort and depression, another factor in a person’s experience of pain.
People living with chronic conditions tend to develop spirituality or seek religious support to help them cope, the study added. People living with depression or anxiety are also likely to seek answers from a higher realm.
The spiritual group was more likely than the religious group to adopt so-called negative coping strategies that don’t offer protective benefits, such as believing their health condition was a punishment from God. The study said that it’s important for people to work through these struggles because they cause stress, which can worsen pain.
Making sense of pain through spirituality
Regardless of your religious affiliation or spiritual beliefs, the research is clear that cultivating some sort of belief in and connection to a higher power promotes good health and lessens pain.
Should you fake this connection if you don’t believe? Perhaps it’s more about suspending your skepticism. Most people believe in something and spend time trying to identify patterns in what can seem like a random universe, according to Psychology Today.
If you’re not interested in this type of relationship, meditation is a good option. Many people consider the practice spiritual, but it doesn’t have to be. Studies have shown that meditation supports happiness and helps people feel less pain.
Of course, if you happen to come from a traditional religious background, you may find that attending services helps you expand feelings of connectedness to a community and develop a sense of deeper meaning.
Finding meaning in suffering isn’t required, but approaching life this way brings many people great peace. Think of the famous Rumi quote:
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
This can be taken to mean that people often use their life’s greatest pains to find their greatest peace. By working with our feelings and uncomfortable experiences, it becomes possible to find peace amid personal trial, perhaps even finding a new meaning to life. If you can find love for yourself in the worst of times, think how much your self-esteem will expand in your better ones.
As the year winds down, it’s the perfect opportunity to take stock of your life and think about the blessings and lessons in your life. If you happen to believe your health problems are a punishment from God, consider working to reframe that belief.
A common spiritual belief is that trials are not punishments, but lessons. Even karma, the popular idea of cause and effect, is frequently misrepresented as payback or reward. Karma simply refers to action and reaction. In the world of karma, there are no punishments, only teachers.
Whether you believe this or not is up to you, but perhaps it would give you some peace if you’re struggling with feeling like you’re being punished by an unfriendly higher power.
Consider what your life would look like if you could find meaning in suffering. What would your life look like if you realized that you’re not a bad person being punished, but a good person learning how to be strong and resilient? A person who is developing the compassion to embrace life and other people in a more open-hearted way?
Ultimately, meaning may be a more helpful index to live life by than the measure of ease. In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl writes about how people can’t prevent suffering and pain, but they can choose to respond, finding meaning where life is devoid of pleasure.
And in meaning, many people find the burdens a little easier to bear.
Do you find spirituality or religion helps you cope with pain?
Image by David Dennis via Flickr