Discovering How Spiritual Wellness Can Improve Mental Health

What is Wellness?

Wellness is bringing together mind, body, and spirit with the goal of living life more fully. Wellness is more than being free of disease, a passive state which might be more accurately called “health,” but also involves active healthy behaviors that help us live the way we want to live. One of the most popular models for this vision of wellness is The Indivisible Self Model, developed by researchers Jane Myers and Thomas Sweeney. They identified five groups of factors that contribute to wellness and saw each group as a self that needs care and attention. The Creative Self includes thought, emotions, control, work, and humor. The Coping Self includes leisure, stress management, self-worth, and realistic beliefs. The Social Self includes friendship and love. The Physical Self includes exercise and nutrition. Finally, The Essential Self includes spirituality, self-care, gender identity, and cultural identity. Spirituality is part of the Essential Self that deserves attention because it is often misunderstood, yet crucial to wellness.

What is Spiritual Wellness?

Spiritual wellness is your connection to beliefs, practices, and experiences that help you live out your values and give your life purpose. Spirituality can function as an expansion of outward knowledge of the world and others, or as a deepening of inward knowledge, wisdom, and self-love.  Although many people associate spirituality with religion, it is not necessary to be religious to develop your spirituality. Psychologist James A. Folwer suggested that the development of faith and spirituality is a process that we all experience, regardless of religion, as we grow into adulthood and beyond. From our earliest years, the beliefs of those around us impact our own beliefs. Spirituality is our experience or making sense of these beliefs and acting on them. It is a process that includes making meaning of our relationships with others, exploring our own identities, and determining our place in the wider community. Caring for this part of our developing self and making spiritual wellness a priority can improve the longevity and quality of our lives. Signs of spiritual wellness include:
  • Developing a purpose in life
  • Having the ability to spend reflective time alone
  • Taking time to reflect on the meaning of events in life
  • Having a clear sense of right and wrong, and acting accordingly
  • Having the ability to explain why you believe what you believe
  • Caring and acting for the welfare of others and the environment
  • Being able to practice forgiveness and compassion in life

How can I Maintain Spiritual Wellness?

Focused practices such as yoga, meditation, or those found in religion can all nurture spirituality.  It is not necessary, however, to begin a particular practice to improve spiritual health. Many other activities have the potential to help create meaning as well as help discover and live out values. Traveling to a new place can help you feel connected to the wider world, while visiting a familiar place can help you relax and reflect free from distractions. Volunteering can help increase your connection to the community and increase compassion and empathy for others, while taking time to do nothing at all can help increase connection to your own emotions and thoughts about what is important to you. Examples of other activities that can help maintain spiritual wellness include:
  • Art
  • Creative Writing
  • Journaling
  • Nature Walks

What is Spiritual Bypassing?

Spiritual bypassing is the use of spirituality to avoid healthy thoughts and behaviors. The term was coined in the 1980s by psychotherapist John Welwood. Welwood, who was also a Buddhist teacher, began to notice that he and his students were often using their spirituality as a defense against difficult feelings and situations that would then go unresolved. Surrendering to God’s will or devoutly following religious doctrine can sometimes mean ignoring life's challenges and rejecting the responsibility of personal development that could help to meet those challenges. You may be experiencing spiritual bypass if you feel that your spirituality has begun to cause you emotional distress or is causing difficulties in relationships with friends, family, or significant others. Spiritual bypassing can lead to:
  • Avoiding processing emotional pain
  • Numbing out
  • Deflecting personal responsibility
  • Refusing to acknowledge personal failures
  • Attempting to forgive others without dealing with personal hurt
  • Expressing emotional pain
  • Spiritual narcissism and obsession

Therapy for Spiritual Support

Whether you find yourself struggling with any of the above challenges, or simply need a safe environment to explore your values and what gives your life meaning, a professional counselor or clinical social worker can offer valuable support. Therapy sessions provide a space in which you can clarify what is most important to you and investigate the impact your beliefs have on yourself and your relationships with others. If you’re interested in learning more about how therapy can help you develop your overall wellness, reach out for support here.
  • By Aaron Brzezinski, Counseling Intern