Chronic Illness and SpiritualityDr. Jim Collins
Many people living with a chronic illness may struggle with everyday tasks, relationships, careers and even their faith. While receiving care or treatment from healthcare providers, they may feel like they are being viewed not as a whole person, but as a diagnosis. Dealing with one’s chronic condition and the many stressors it may be associated with can significantly impair coping abilities. Some will turn to spirituality to find strength, peace and the ability to live their best life with their condition.
What is Spirituality?
Many experts find it very difficult to define something that is intangible, multidimensional, complex, and deeply personal. Some define spirituality as that which affects the human spirit or soul. Others refer to it as a dimension that provides one’s life with meaning and purpose. It involves a journey or personal quest for understanding life’s big questions like “Why am I here?” or “What does this all mean?” For those living with a chronic illness, the question may be “Why me?”
Spirituality and Religiosity
There has always been some confusion about the differences between spirituality and religiosity. Can one be spiritual without being religious? Religiosity can be conceptualized as following a specific religion, taking part in its rituals, and believing in its teachings and God. People who attend Catholic Mass on Sundays are said to exhibit religiosity. This can be said to be an act of spirituality.
Spirituality has a far broader scope than religiosity. It is about transcending one’s self or finding an ultimate truth. Some say that spirituality is all about one’s personal relationship or experience with God. Within this relationship, one hopes to find their essence of being, and their deepest values and meaning by which they live.
Defining “Chronic Illness”
Health conditions that last over 90 days and are expected to worsen over time are considered chronic illnesses. They also tend to occur more often in older adults and seniors. While symptoms of chronic illnesses may be managed through medications and other medical treatments, there is no cure for them. The most common chronic illnesses in the United States are:
- Heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
It’s been known for some time that health and spirituality have many important connections. Chronic illnesses tend to disrupt the person’s life in many ways which may lead to depression, loss of hope, meaninglessness, irritability and loss in coping.
Spirituality = Coping
Spirituality can be relied upon as a coping strategy for traumatic or negative experiences in one’s life, including being diagnosed and living with a chronic illness. It helps to increase one’s sense of meaning and purpose which can lead to greater resistance to stress. In this sense, spirituality can be viewed as a buffer to negative experiences associated with chronic illness.
Finding Meaning in Pain
Pain is associated with many chronic conditions and can significantly disrupt many things in the person’s life. Pain may also cause anxiety or depression, all of which make symptoms worse. People who are spiritual may find meaning in their pain and personal struggle. It may help in bringing peace and calm, a reduction in distress, and hope that their pain will pass.
Pain as A Spiritual Encounter
Some people may experience their condition as a “spiritual encounter” with something that is beyond themselves and out of their control. They may attempt to allow pain to simply be, to accept it, and to let it pass. This encounter is an experience involving physical, emotional and spiritual qualities as well as a means of being connected to a higher power or God. Ultimately, this helps the individual cope with pain.
Final Thoughts on Chronic Illness and Spirituality
Although young and middle-aged people live with chronic health conditions, the majority are those 65 years of age and older. Many older adults and seniors will live with long-lasting illnesses that may cause pain and suffering. Spirituality can help people through some of the toughest times throughout their illness, bring hope and greater coping, and ultimately improve the quality of their physical and emotional lives.