The Big Idea
After everything we have been through in the past two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic, some of us might struggle to think positively or have hope for a brighter future. The mental wellbeing tip for this week from Dr Afiniki Akanet (inspirational author and speaker) is simple: have faith.
As people who love science, we sometimes give little attention to spirituality and faith, but Dr Akanet tells us why this can be good for our mental health from her personal and medical experience.
We are not talking about attending church every Sunday or taking up burdensome religious rituals, but a decision to see the good around us, believe and live in faith. Faith in people, ourselves or a greater cause. This might be even just having faith in tomorrow being better than today…
When many of us had to isolate, and social gatherings were cancelled, it was clear that those who had this special inner strength did better mentally, even when faced with illness and other challenges. People of faith get to stack several of our 52 tips by their chosen lifestyle, making them experience greater mental wellbeing. Dr Akanet is a General Practitioner (GP) with a special interest in mental health. She shares how she regularly makes time in her busy schedule for prayer (#Tip3 Grateful Thoughts), fasting (Breakfast Brain #Tip29) and worship music (Playlist for Life #Tip12). Her own faith helps her to forgive others (Let it Go #Tip31) and structure her days with Bible reading (Bookend Your Day #Tip35). She can also enjoy laughter (The Best Medicine #Tip41) and hugs (Hugs Matter #Tip21) with friends from church, where she loves to sing and dance (Brew and Dance #Tip16 and Sing it Out #Tip18). Dr Akanet is convinced that her faith has been a major factor in maintaining empathy and resilience through her years of medical training, and as an NHS GP in the current climate.
In other words having faith, at least for Dr Akanet, is possibly the ultimate habit stack.
Got it…What’s the Science
Researchers report that “most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression, and suicide” 1. Mental and physical health are interconnected, as shown by the fact that people with depression and anxiety tend to have more physical health problems. Poor mental health and physical health then leads to a poorer quality of life and a shorter life expectancy. Because many religions encourage taking better care of one’s physical body, such as by avoiding activities that have negative health consequences, it makes sense that paying attention to one’s spiritual health is associated with better mental and physical health outcomes.
We have already spoken in The52Project as coaches of how having a future or solution goal focus can put you in a better, calmer place which frees up creative brain capacity and likelihood of ‘seeing’ desired opportunities when they happen. Praying or meditating and believing that this will come to pass (having faith) – even without a divine intervention – could be placing our brains in the best place for those things to actually happen for us. In fact, the Bible describes faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” 3 which matches here.
When it comes to mental health, it is well known that patients with a faith often fare better, even though there is relatively limited research into this topic. Religion and spirituality can relate to an external locus of control (such as, people believing in God as a higher power in their lives), but most research concludes that religious people also have a strong internal sense of control2. It is felt that as people pray and seek guidance from God, they feel a sense of control over their circumstances. People with a healthy faith also feel in control of their free will to believe or not to believe, thereby choosing the beliefs that guide their actions. Socio-psychological models that extol wellbeing and fulfilment by aligning their lives with values, environment and behaviour often include the greater good or deity (their spiritual focus) at their pinnacle or beyond the individual as having a higher life orienting role (see neurological levels in links).
On the other hand, negative thoughts associated with spirituality and religion can be linked to higher rates of depression and a poorer quality of life, such as when people feel, for example, that they are being “punished by God” or if they are striving pointlessly to gain some sort of perfection by willpower. Such additional stress can be harmful to mental health and should be mindfully guarded against. We suggest that fundamentalism or fatalism in any belief or system is limiting and counterproductive to a fuller and respectful life with ourselves and others – especially if it leads to violence, intolerance or discrimination.
That said, Dr Akanet reminds us that spirituality and religions can offer hope and some answers to difficult, existential questions that medical professionals and scientists cannot easily help with. It has to be said too that science itself, although in theory based on empirical evidenced based facts, often involves degrees of faith in the process as well as us having faith in these findings, those that find them, how they are reported and reviewed for publication.
It is recognised that good medical consultations include an exploration of a patient’s spirituality and beliefs as part of a more wholistic approach to their healthcare. Again arguably this includes patient trust in the clinician/s as well as the science and the medical basis for treatments used. So, in many ways, faith and beliefs are very much be part of patient care .
An interesting article in Forbes (video link below) explains that connectedness, hope, optimism, trust and purpose (words associated with spirituality and religion) have been shown to boost mental health:“Compassion, forgiveness and gratefulness are also qualities that are strongly associated with individuals who are spiritual and religious. Practicing these qualities is thought to be associated with decreased stress and increased resilience”.
If this is not enough, a study of 1500 obituaries across the US by scientists in Ohio State University concluded that those with religious beliefs live on average 4 years longer than those that don’t.
1 Mueller et al., 2001 (see links)
2 Koenig, 2012 (see links)
3 Hebrews 11, 1
Watch our #Tip44 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With Dulcie, Dr Iain and special guest GP Dr Afiniki Akanet.
Science Says: Religion Is Good For Your Health – Forbes article by Nicole F. Roberts (2019) (video above).
Religious Involvement, Spirituality, and Medicine: Implications for Clinical Practice – review research paper by Mueller et al., 2001.
Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications – paper in Psychiatry by Koenig, 2012.
Why Do People of Faith Live Longer? Article by Micaela Ricaforte (2018)
Optimists Live Longer – BBC article (2000)
We believe (see what we did there?) that it is worth taking a moment to think about our own current views on life, spirituality and who and what we have faith in. Ignoring the issue of one’s own faith and beliefs – spirituality – doesn’t really make it go away either. Unfortunately history has shown that devolving responsibility for one’s own faith and beliefs often means for better or worse it tends to be externally determined for us by others. Devolving responsibility to who and what we have faith in means we are vulnerable to living by others’ beliefs and faiths. Unfortunately unchecked this has historically led to terrible injustices and atrocities. That said those with a faith have also led to some of the lives we see the best of and in humanity. Many charities as well as non-governmental humanitarian and environmental organisations have faith or belief based roots. Such groups and people have stood up against injustices, fed and clothed the poor and cared for the destitute. Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mendela even Elon Musk who despite, or even inspite of, money, power or fame were / are sure of what they hoped for and certain of what they could not yet see – ultimately role models leading to world changing affirmative movements too. In a world and at a time of such negativity what could faith and belief mean for you? Well it could include 4 extra years to your lifetime.
At best this is a tip that could also help with finding your flock (#Tip34) that could for you unlock connectedness, hope, optimism, trust and purpose. If you already have a faith, it might be worthwhile reconnecting with a positive, helpful like minded faith/belief based community, and forming daily habits that help you stay healthy and to live purposefully. Please remember we are not saying who or what here – we are recognising the science and wisdom of having and keeping a faith.
There is so much negativity in the world, but how do we imbibe that “connectedness, hope, optimism, trust and purpose” that has been shown to boost mental health and resilience as well as years to life? If you already have a faith, it might be worth reconnecting with a positive, helpful faith community, and forming daily habits that help you grow. Intentional living is about managing our time well to ensure that all the things/people we care about are well taken care of, and that includes our spiritual health. You can read more inspirational books and blogs from Dr Akanet at Afiniki.co.uk
Watch this space… Or why not comment on faith or belief based moments that have meant something to you?
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