Spiritual Healing - Reverend Esther Irish

When I first started working as a pastor, my primary care physician said, “Thank you” to me, then explained that the work of the pastor made people more able to cope with pain and emotions so that they were not presented to the physician to “fix.” Aristotle (4th century B.C.) described pain as emotion, being the opposite of pleasure; looking at pain through this lens helps the caregiver to understand that it is not just a physical problem but involves the total system which can be approached with both a medical view and a non-medical view.

Pain relief is a management problem for many patients, their families, and the professionals caring for them. Research on the biology and neurobiology of pain has given us a relationship between spirituality and pain. There is a growing recognition that persistent pain is a complex and multidimensional experience stemming from the interrelations among biological, psychological, social, and spiritual factors. Patients with pain use several cognitive and behavioral strategies to cope with their pain, including religious/spiritual factors, such as prayers and seeking spiritual support to manage their pain.

Both religious and spiritual beliefs help some people accept their illness and help explain disease for others. By providing meaning to life and death, religion can supply the client, the family, and health professionals with a sense of strength, security, and faith during a time of need.

Pain management may entail various behavioral, religious/spiritual, medication (prescription and alternative), and surgical options.

Spirituality and religion may influence the experience of pain and fatigue. Religious people are less likely to have pain and fatigue, according to Baetz and Bowen. They obtained data from 37.000 individuals, 15 years of age or older, with fibromyalgia, back pain, migraine headaches, and chronic fatigue syndrome, and those who are spiritual but not affiliated with regular worship attendance are more likely to have those conditions. They also found that those with chronic pain and fatigue were more likely to use prayer and seek spiritual support as a coping method compared to other people. Pain sufferers who were both religious and spiritual were more likely to have better psychological well being and use positive strategies. Therefore, it would seem appropriate for an individuals’ spirituality/religion to be considered as part of the evaluation and management plan, as it may be a useful coping strategy. [Chronic pain and fatigue: Associations with religion and spirituality. Baetz M, Bowen R Pain Res Manag. 2008 Sep-Oct; 13(5):383-8.]

Seeking medical care and using prayer are not mutually exclusive activities. Research has found that the majority of patients with chronic pain use religious/spiritual forms such as prayer and spiritual support for coping with their pain. The internal sources of disease control, such as conscious and healthy living and positive attitudes, were the strongest predictors of patients’ reliance on spirituality and religion apart from the religious denomination. [Koening HG. Chronic pain: biomedical and spiritual approaches. New York: The Haworth Pastoral Press; 2003]

Correlational research has suggested that individuals with strong religious and spiritual lives tend to be healthier, psychologically, and physically. In a meta-analysis of 147 independent studies of religiousness and depressive symptoms, religiousness appeared to protect against depression, particularly in times of significant life stress. This relationship is also valid in a study of chronic pain patients; those who reported more spiritual experiences also reported more positive mental health. Furthermore, the relationship between spirituality and mental health was most robust among those reporting higher levels of pain. [Religiousness and depression: evidence for a main effect and the moderating influence of stressful life events. Smith TB, McCullough ME, Poll J. Psychol Bull. 2003 Jul; 129(4):614-36.]

Some researchers have found that some types of religious/spiritual coping are adaptive (i.e., positive religious coping) while other types are maladaptive (i.e., negative religious coping). Positive coping includes collaborative problem solving with God, helping others in need, and seeking spiritual support from the community and a higher power. Negative coping includes deferring all responsibility to God, feeling abandoned by God, and blaming God for difficulties. [Pargament KI, Smith BW, Koening HG, Perez C. Patterns of positive and negative religious coping with major life stressors. J Sci Study Religion 1998;37:710-24.] A study by Bush et al. examining the use of positive coping (looks to a higher power for strength, comfort, and support) and negative coping (divine discipline, divine chastisement, God’s punishment) found that positive coping was associated with adaptive outcomes (e.g., better mental or physical health). Negative coping appeared to be maladaptive, and those who felt they were punished by God saw the pain as retribution from God. Other negative coping “skills” made patients feel abandoned by God when they most needed support. [Religious coping with chronic pain. Bush EG, Rye MS, Brant CR, Emery E, Pargament KI, Riessinger CA. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 1999 Dec; 24(4):249-60.]

Balance is needed between self-efficacy and the relinquishment of control to an outside party, whether that outside force is religious and spiritual or medical and pharmacological. The best treatment outcomes may be experienced when an individual’s “meaning-making” system includes responsibility for some self-efficacy in the treatment process. When people cannot find relief from the medical profession for intense and debilitating pain, they are likely to turn to an alternative source for help in coping. [Review Religious involvement, spirituality, and medicine: implications for clinical practice. Mueller PS, Plevak DJ, Rummans TA. Mayo Clin Proc. 2001 Dec; 76 (12) :1225-35.]