Can Religion and Spirituality Help with Managing Chronic Pain?

Our current medical system derives largely from the biomedical model, which focuses on physical causes for disease. The more recent bio-psychosocial model posits that other factors, including your emotional state, support system (friends and family), and the environment also play a role, both in the development of disease and its prognosis. Research shows that religion and spirituality can help patients living with various types of chronic disease, including chronic pain, to better manage their symptoms.

While some people equate the terms, “religion” and “spirituality,” the words can have different meanings. Religion typically refers to some type of organized faith or worship, often with extensive history and a system by which individuals express and share their beliefs, such as attending services at a church, temple, or mosque. Spirituality, on the other hand, refers to a belief in transcendence- that is things which cannot be fully explained or understood. Your awe in witnessing a spectacular sunset, or the joy of seeing a newborn child are examples of transcendent experiences.

Both religion and spirituality can be a resource for coping with pain symptoms- physical and emotional.  Physical limitations in performing daily activities such as house or office work can be disheartening. Could something positive come of this? Is it possible to consider pain as a transformative experience (Dyer & Stieg, 2015), which in the end makes you stronger?

Buddha is thought to have said that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Buddhists believe that suffering results from desires that cannot be satisfied. A relevant example might be the desire to be completely cured of chronic pain when this is not possible. Might you take a different stance, that you will learn to be a valuable person within your network of family, friends, and colleagues despite these limitations? Consider Franklin D. Roosevelt who led the United States through the Second World War from a wheelchair, physicist Stephen Hawkins whose work earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and mathematician John Nash (subject of the movie, A Beautiful Mind), who won the Nobel prize while living with schizophrenia.

While some individuals value their community of fellow worshipers at weekly religious services, other prefer solitude in contemplating the transcendent. Multiple forms of meditation, including transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation and certain yoga practices speak well to this. Many have found that making brief meditation sessions a daily practice has helped them to focus and seek joy the present-centered awareness. The freely downloadable phone app, Calm, might be a starting point.

Melzack and Wall’s gate control theory (1965), discussed in chapter 1 of Chronic Back Pain: A Self-Management Framework (see the link of this website for a free digital download), explains that the same areas of the brain process both physical and emotional components of pain. While some believe that emotions are less “real” than physical symptoms, this is a fallacy. They are interconnected, as proven by MRI studies of the hippocampus and amygdala- brain areas involved in pain processing.

For many individuals, religion and spirituality have been a source of comfort and strength in overcoming seemingly impossible odds. Consider transcendence- that spirit of awe and wonder- the next time you find yourself in the midst of a particularly dark moment.

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