Spirituality affects feeling and religion regulates behaviour, says academic study

Spirituality regulates our emotions, while religion affects our habits.

Spirituality regulates our emotions, while religion affects our habits.

You might think religion and spirituality often go hand in hand – and perhaps they do in some ways for some people – but they can have different effects on how we feel and act, according to research from Oregon State University.

The study says that spirituality, which may include practices such as meditation and ‘self transcendence’ – where we feel our lives part of something bigger than our physical selves – can regulate our emotions. Fair enough. Anyone with a spiritual practice is likely to feel more connected with him/herself and with the universe. But that connection doesn’t end with increased wellbeing, says the study. Spirituality can also have an impact on “the inflammatory processes underlying chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancer”. The researchers added: “Measures of spirituality were more strongly linked to biomarkers, including blood pressure, cardiac reactivity, immune factors, and disease progression.”

Religion – defined as an affiliation or service attendance – was “strongly associated with better health behaviour habits, including lower smoking and alcohol consumption, and greater likelihood of medical screenings”.

The results aren’t conclusive, and are open to further research, but from this study it seems that the impact of religion and/or spirituality in our lives could have a positive effect.

Related article:

Can spirituality make you more resilient to depression?

Can spirituality make you more resilient to depression?

Researchers says spiritual beliefs can protect the brain from mood disorders such as depression. (pic: istockphoto.com/Skaya)

Researchers says spiritual beliefs can protect the brain from mood disorders such as depression. (pic: istockphoto.com/Skaya)

Apparently it can. A scientific study has suggested that spirituality gives people who are prone to depression a thicker outer part of the brain – which may offer some protection from depression.

The report studied 103 adults aged 18-54 from a family background of depression, and took MRI scans of their brains. They found a thicker cortex – the part of the brain that processes senses, language and emotion – in the survey participants who said religion or spirituality was important to them, compared with those who didn’t. A thinner cortex is linked with higher risk of depression.

However, being spiritual does not give you a thicker cortex, the researchers reported. Nor does more frequent attendance at church.

Myrna Weissman, professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University and chief of the Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology department at New York State Psychiatric Institute, who worked on the study, said: “Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain, and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this. A thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression.”

What to make of these results? The researchers had previously found a 90% decreased risk of depression among the adult children of parents who were suffering from it. The therapeutic value of these findings is not clear, not even to the scientists, who believe that it’s the start of further research.

Weissman says the body and mind are connected – but how? Does having faith or belief in something beyond the physical here-and-now body help sustain people through difficult times? In an area that must be incredibly difficult to measure, I’ll be interested in what scientists can prove in the future.