For many people, religious faith is just another part of life, like school or work—something that defines us, but can, perhaps, be taken for granted. But recent research has shown that cultivating a sense of personal spirituality can be beneficial to health and well-being, particularly for those with chronic conditions like lupus.
Whether you attend a prayer group or meditate, cultivating a spiritual or faith-based practice can improve your physical and emotional well-being, studies suggest.
By the time Tanisha Agee-Bell graduated from high school in 1992, she hadn’t been active in her family’s church for several years. The granddaughter of a Baptist minister, the stay-at-home mother of five says it wasn’t until she began experiencing health issues in college—problems that baffled her doctors for years, until her lupus diagnosis in 2004—that she thought about returning to her spiritual community.
“I didn’t know how to handle my symptoms, because no one seemed to know what was wrong,” says Agee-Bell, 38, who was incorrectly diagnosed with cervical cancer, among other conditions. “And people began to ask me if I had prayed about it. I thought, ‘What does God care about me and my little problems?’”
Agee-Bell’s mother died from complications of lupus in 2003, and after her own lupus diagnosis the following year, Agee-Bell began looking for a prayer group to help her cope. “I surrounded myself with people who would pray with me, create a circle of healing, and they showed me I didn’t have to go through this alone,” she says.
Agee-Bell’s return to faith is not unusual. Research shows that spiritual practice can help improve quality of life for people who have chronic illnesses and that it can aid in pain management. A 2008 study from Johns Hopkins Community Physicians found that people with chronic illness who engaged in daily spiritual activities—such as prayer, yoga, and transcendental meditation—reported more energy and less depression than those who did not.
Such results aren’t surprising, says Paul DeBell, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of Decoding the Spiritual Messages of Everyday Life (Sterling Publishing, 2009). “Most people feel cut off from life when they’re diagnosed with a chronic illness, and they can become more private and withdrawn,” he says. “An illness that threatens our well-being can be seen as a tragedy, or it can be a wakeup call that we are more than our material bodies.”
It is her faith in God and the community she discovered through her church that has helped Donna Fubler manage her lupus for 23 years. A Seventh-day Adventist living in Bermuda, Fubler says the fellowship she experiences through her church is as important as her relationship with God.
“If you can find a group of people who need your help, it takes your mind off your own problems,” she says. Fubler’s congregation offers community service opportunities that, along with weekly worship and prayer, keep her focus off her own limitations.
Catherine Hayes, 46, a yoga instructor in Ontario, Canada, says meditation and yoga give her a spiritual well-being she couldn’t find through other avenues. Hayes says she was drawn to yoga from a very early age after discovering a book about it in the library. “I spent a lot of time meditating, sitting in the ‘lotus’ position,” she says.
With her lupus diagnosis at age 31 came the realization that she was no longer capable of spending eight hours a day teaching yoga classes. After nearly injuring herself, Hayes shifted her focus to the spiritual side of her practice—meditation and yoga nidra, also known as “yoga sleep.”
Such practice can help with physical symptoms as well as mental stress, says Hayes. “Even if you’re in pain, you can supersede that through meditation,” she says. “When you have lupus, your mind and body can feel disconnected. Meditation can help bring the two back together.”
While there are many ways to practice meditation, Hayes suggests starting by focusing on breathing—how long it takes to inhale and exhale. Then, “go through your whole body, asking: How are my feet? How are my legs?” And don’t fret about distraction. Most people get distracted an average of 35 times in 15 minutes, she says.
Continuing the Conversation
Like meditation, Agee-Bell says that for her, prayer is a way to relax and focus on her own body’s needs. “I don’t want to burden people with my problems, but I can freely talk to God about what’s going on with me, physically and emotionally, about hating my meds or being angry with my doctor,” she says.
Faith, says Agee-Bell, gives her strength. It “makes it so I’m not afraid of lupus or the other diseases I have,” she says. “If I didn’t have my faith, I would live in fear of everything—of dying, of not being here to watch my kids grow up. My faith provides comfort. It gives me freedom.”