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Religious and Spiritual Phenomena are Relevant to Virtually All Areas of Health

Crystal L. Park, PhD, & Amy B. Wachholtz, PhD, MDiv, Spirituality & Health SIG Co-Chairs

Spirituality & Health SIGIn recent years, research on the links between religion/spirituality (R/S) and physical health has increased dramatically in both sophistication and sheer volume (see Masters & Hooker, in press, for a review). The importance and applicability of R/S to physical health have yet to be recognized by the broader health research community, but the fact is that aspects of R/S cut across virtually every area of health research and are therefore highly germane to all members of SBM. Further, evidence suggests that patients are more frequently integrating their spiritual practices, such as prayer, into traditional medical practices (Wachholtz & Sambamthoori, 2011). In this brief article, we present a sampling of linkages to some major areas of health with the goal of stimulating interest and perhaps spurring new research and collaborations with those outside of our SIG. Importantly, the measurement of spirituality in health research has advanced far beyond frequency of church attendance or general rating of levels of spirituality; researchers now generally acknowledge the multiple distinct dimensions of religion and spirituality.

Cardiovascular and R/S. Cardiovascular health and R/S research has shown the intricacies of the links between psycho-physiological, spiritual, and cardiac health. General spirituality has limited predictive validity on cardiovascular health (Blumenthal, et al, 2007). However, research on specific religious coping strategies shows that greater specificity in measurement, leads to more useful results. For example, people who use positive religious coping prior to cardiac surgery are likely to have better short-term positive global functioning after surgery (Ai, Peterson, Bolling, & Rodgers, 2006).

Pain and R/S. Researchers are also beginning to better understand the complex relationship between pain and spirituality. Early studies provided evidence that religious and spiritual coping can reduce the pain experience. More recent research shows that it is not just the pain level that changes, but that positive spiritual strategies improve the ability to cope with pain and increase functional status, even if pain levels do not change (Wachholtz, Pearce, & Koenig, 2007).

R/S and Cancer. Most research on R/S and cancer has not demonstrated effects directly on cancer incidence or survival or morbidity (with the exceptions of lifestyle links noted below), but many aspects of R/S have been shown to relate to better psychological well-being and higher health-related quality of life (see Park, in press, for a review).

R/S and Health Behaviors. Strong links between R/S and lower levels of health risk behaviors such as alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug use have long been noted (e.g., Park, 2012). R/S has been less strongly related to other aspects of a healthy lifestyle such as exercise and diet. Some recent research has demonstrated links between preventive health behaviors such as vaccines (Benjamins & Brown, 2004).

Aging and R/S. Many studies have found that R/S can serve important roles in the health and well-being of older adults. For example, a study of older hospitalized adults followed for approximately two years found that, over time, positive religious coping was associated with better general health while negative religious coping predicted increased morbidity and mortality (Pargament, Koenig, Tarakeshwar, & Hahn, 2004).

We present this brief review of research linking R/S and physical health in the hope of spurring increased attention to and interest in R/S by health researchers. For those whose interest is piqued, we encourage you to read much, much more. If you are interested in collaborating on future projects, please feel free to contact us (crystal.park@uconn.edu, amy.wachholtz@umassmemorial.org), we will be happy to put you in touch with Spirituality SIG group members who share your interests. We look forward to continued development of this field as well as increased integration of the multidimensional phenomena of R/S into many different areas of health.


Ai, A.L., Peterson, C., Bolling, S.F., & Rodgers, W. (2006). Depression, faith-based coping, and short-term postoperative global functioning in adult and older patients undergoing cardiac surgery. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 60, 21-28.

Benjamins, M. R., & Brown, C. (2004). Religion and preventative health care utilization among the elderly. Social Science and Medicine, 58, 109-118.

Blumenthal, J.A., Babyak, M.A., Ironson, G., Thoresen, C., Powell, L., et al. (2007). Spirituality, religion, and clinical outcomes in patients recovering from an acute myocardial infarction. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69, 501-508.

Masters, K. S., & Hooker, S. A. (in press). Religion, spirituality, and health. Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.). In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.) New York: Guilford.

Pargament, K.I., Koenig, H.G., Tarakeshwar, N., & Hahn, J. (2004). Religious coping methods as predictors of psychological, physical and spiritual outcomes among medically ill elderly patients: A two-year longitudinal study. Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 713-730.

Park, C. L. (2012). Meaning, spirituality, and growth: Protective and resilience factors in health and illness (pp. 405-430). In A. S. Baum, T. A., Revenson, & J. E. Singer (Eds.), Handbook of health psychology, Second Edition. New York: Sage.

Park, C. L. (in press). Spirituality and meaning making in cancer survivorship. In K. Markman, T. Proulx, T., & M. Lindberg (Eds.), The psychology of meaning. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Wachholtz, A.B., Pearce, M.J., & Koenig, H.G. (2007). Exploring the Relationship between Spirituality, Coping, and Pain. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30, 311-318.

Wachholtz, A.B., & Sambamthoori, U. (2011). National Trends in Prayer Use as a Coping Mechanism for Health concerns: Changes From 2002 to 2007. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 3, 67-77.