Research already shows religion and spirituality are linked to positive physical and mental health, and now some doctors are asking how such beliefs factor into coping mechanisms used to deal with chronic disabilities.

Many patients become more spiritual when faced with death due to an illness. But does religion make a difference when an illness isn't terminal, but instead is something a person will have to deal with the rest of his life such as traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, stroke and arthritis?

To date, religion hasn't really been discussed in rehabilitation settings and is rarely investigated. But a team at MU is looking at how the body and brain respond if spirituality is factored into an injured patient's new life.

"We're not trying to say there's a god part of the brain or anything like that," said Brick Johnstone, a professor of Health Psychology in the MU School of Health Professions. "But we're saying certain parts of the brain are active or inactive when different people from different religious backgrounds report feeling closest to God or the universe."

More results show religion helps many with disabilities adjust to their permanent impairments and gives new meaning to their lives.

"Even if you try to say we're not going to have spirituality in medicine, good luck. It comes out, either in subtle ways or more obvious ways," said Dr. Clay Anderson, an oncologist.

And what type of church, synagogue or temple a person attends makes no difference. Johnstone's work looked at brain scans of Buddist monks as well as Franciscan nuns, both groups showed identical brain activity when feeling connected to their respective God. So the therapeutic value seems to lie with a connection with a higher power.

"Have you looked at Catholics? Have you looked at this branch of Catholicism? What about Hindus? What about Conservative Jews? And Orthodox Jews?" Johnstone said. "When they report transcendence experiences, they have a sense of unity with the universe. I don't have a sense of self, I'm overcome with awe. So it's leading us to see different brain parts are linked to different spiritual experiences."

Patients who were injured as the result of the actions of others may be better able to work toward recovery if they can use their religious beliefs to work through emotions surrounding the cause of the disability.

"People who are more likely to forgive have better health. And once again it fits with psycho-neuro emunicological models," Johnstone said.

Another interesting aspects of health and spirituality is those who have a community or congregation support system have better mental health, while those who report feeling a stronger spiritual connection have better physical health.

And 90 percent of the population say religion is important to them and more than half of doctors believe religion and spirituality have a significant influence on patients' health. Still few practical suggestions exist for how to mix the two.

Johnstone said health care providers should encourage religious practices such as yoga, reading of religious texts, meditation or laying on of hands. Meanwhile, according to him, health and medical students should be taught about various religious beliefs and how they might be used to the patients advantage in a rehabilitative settin

Reported by: Angie Bailey
Posted by: Megan Granger

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