Spirituality & Religion

No matter how we experience or practice it, spirituality can be an important source of joy and solace in all our lives. Spirituality can connect us with other people, help us tackle life’s big questions, and guide us through troubled times. While some people explore their spirituality through organized religion, some find spirituality in other areas of life—whether through art, nature, or simply quiet contemplation.

However, spirituality (or lack of spirituality) can also be a source of worry or stress. For example, you might worry about living up to the ideals of your religion. Or you might feel uncertain of your spiritual beliefs and how they fit into your day-to-day life. At times, these worries can even lead to symptoms of common mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

If you’re facing questions or concerns related to spirituality, it may be helpful to seek support from a therapist who specializes in issues around spirituality.

How does mental health relate to spirituality?

There is lots of research showing that spirituality is an important factor in the lives of many Americans today. For instance, a large survey from the Pew Research Center found that 20% of Americans named spirituality and faith as factors that bring meaning to their lives.

However, it’s much harder to tell how exactly spirituality and faith relate to one another. As some reviews of the research point out, having religious or spiritual beliefs can help people cope better with life’s challenges.

At the same time, certain beliefs can also make mental health challenges worse. For example, a religious person who believes God is punishing them might have a harder time bouncing back from a negative experience.

What’s clear is that the relationship between spirituality and mental health can be complex. Accordingly, it has become more common for therapists to address clients’ spiritual beliefs as part of therapy. Some forms of therapy (such as transpersonal therapy) even focus on spirituality as the core of treatment.

Issues around spirituality can look very different for different people. However, these common mental health challenges (among others) may be related to spiritual concerns:

  • Anxiety or worry: You may be preoccupied with anxiety about your spirituality and find it hard to relax or think about other things.
  • Depression: Feeling uncertain or conflicted about your spirituality can lead to sadness, hopelessness, lethargy, and other symptoms of depression.
  • Conflicts with friends and/or family: Particularly if you belong to a religious community or your family is religious, questioning your spirituality can create tension in your close relationships.
  • Identity concerns: Uncertainty about your religious or spiritual beliefs may be a source of difficulty in your identity development.
  • Existential crisis: Concerns around spirituality can lead you to question the larger meaning of your life and can make you wonder if you’re on the right path.
  • Physical symptoms: Stress often comes with physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles. You might find that these symptoms get worse when you’re in a religious setting or thinking about your spirituality.

Common issues relating to spirituality

Concerns around spirituality can take countless forms, but here are a few common scenarios:

  • Crisis of faith: You might suddenly find yourself questioning your beliefs for a number of reasons, from the death of a loved one to an upsetting article in the newspaper.
  • Identity development: Especially if you’re in the process of developing your own identity apart from your family (if you’ve recently left for college, for example), it’s natural to wonder how your spiritual beliefs fit in.
  • Life transitions: Big life transitions, such as moving to a new city or having a baby, can give you a new perspective on spirituality and lead you to rethink its role in your life.
  • Current events: You may find yourself wondering how to reconcile your religious or spiritual beliefs with your knowledge of local, national, or even international events.
  • Professional concerns : Especially if you’re experiencing a lot of stress or uncertainty at work, you may be questioning your life’s purpose and wondering how your spirituality can help you understand it.

If you’re dealing with any of the issues described here, you have a number of options:

  • Therapy: Therapy can be a helpful way to work on understanding your spiritual concerns and develop strategies for dealing with any related mental health challenges. (More tips on finding a therapist below.)
  • Talk to a religious leader: If you’re part of an organized religion, you might find it helpful to talk to a leader in your religious community (or someone else in the community whom you trust) about your concerns.
  • Make a self-care plan: Putting together a concrete plan for taking care of yourself can be a great way to prioritize your own well-being, no matter what your spiritual beliefs. Do your best to prioritize sleep, healthy eating, hydration, relaxation, and other aspects of a balanced lifestyle.
  • Journaling: Keeping a written record of your thoughts and feelings around your spirituality may help you clarify your experiences and consider your spirituality more calmly.
  • Pursue creative projects or hobbies: Lots of people find visual arts, performing arts, music, and creative writing to be valuable spiritual outlets. What’s more, they can also be helpful ways to diffuse your body’s stress response and make your spiritual concerns feel less worrisome.

A number of different kinds of psychotherapy may be helpful for concern around spirituality. In particular, the following varieties of psychotherapy are specifically structured to incorporate spirituality into treatment:

You’ll want to make sure that your therapist is qualified to treat issues related to spirituality, as well as any specific related mental health problems you may be experiencing. This will usually involve:

  • Advanced education in a field related to mental health, such as psychiatry, psychology, or social work;
  • Licensure to practice in the state where you live;
  • Additional training and/or experience in treating spiritual issues specifically, along with previously experience with any mental health conditions you want to address. For example, if you are feeling depressed because of your concerns around spirituality, you’ll want a therapist who has experience treating depression.

Finally, as with any therapy, it’s important to make sure that your therapist is a good fit for your unique needs. Be sure to evaluate the following in your initial calls with therapists:

  • How will you pay for therapy? Does the therapist take your insurance or otherwise offer rates that will work with your budget?
  • When and where will you attend sessions? Does the therapist offer treatment at a location that is convenient for you and at times that work with your schedule?
  • Most importantly, do you feel comfortable talking to this therapist and sense that you have the potential to develop a therapeutic alliance?