When Slone Kays’ nerves drove her blood pressure up during a spinal tap earlier this year, she knew what would help. She wanted to pray.
“I asked if I could say a prayer, and I made all the nurses pray with me,” Kays said. “I wasn’t praying for me but for other people, like the doctor’s hands.”
The nurses at Women’s and Children’s Hospital told her family that as soon as Kays said “Dear Lord,” her blood pressure returned to normal.
Kays, 16, was diagnosed with brain cancer in September 2011. She expects to be done with chemotherapy around December 2012. Throughout the process, her faith has helped her cope.
When she was first diagnosed, she kept asking, “Why?”
As time went on, the question changed: “Why not me? There is a reason for this.”
According to a recent University of Missouri study, spirituality relates to increased mental health, regardless of which religion that spirituality is connected to.
Dan Cohen, one of the researchers, said this could help doctors and other health professionals with interventions and rehabilitation that relate better to patients’ spirituality.
In conducting the study, surveys were given to people in the Columbia area. These surveys included questions to determine whether mental and physical health, personality factors and spirituality were correlated. Different faiths were included in the surveys, including Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Catholics and Protestants.
According to the study results, physical health perception is related to increased participation in religious activities. It also shows that mental health perception is related to an increased willingness to forgive as a positive coping strategy. Mental health is also connected to forgiveness. In this study, the authors consider forgiveness to be spiritual, but they note that it can also be non-religious and non-spiritual.
Cohen said some practices could help patients deal with their own impressions of their health problems – and their ability to overcome those problems.
“Forms of counseling that can be steered toward forgiveness protocols could be very useful, or maybe there are different methodologies like meditation, or specific forms of counseling,” Cohen said.
But not everyone is this optimistic.
“If you are suffering for some kind of ailment and you think God has it out for you, this would be some form of negative spirituality,” Cohen said.
Raymond Ronci, a Zen Buddhist monk, said something similar – he said it is important to look at the negative aspects of spirituality.
“A lot of times those firm beliefs that might give a person mental health or some kind of solace can inspire hatred, as well,” he said. “It can inspire separation, or can inspire ‘othering’ where you isolate a person or a people as being different than you and focus on that difference.”
He shared a story of someone who was afraid of death because she believed that as a result of some life circumstances, she was going to go to hell.
“That’s not solace, that’s not religion doing you a favor,” Ronci said.
Still, Cohen said religious traditions can help give people coping skills, which can improve mental health. He said people who have had deep religious experiences have been proven to be highly adapted to their societies.
“They are more giving – less caught up in the things that people get caught up in that cause psychological disorders and stress, which can cause physical disorders as well,” Cohen said. “These people seem to have better adaptation skills.”
Fahad Alajmi, a student at the University of Missouri, said Muslim Ramadan and Eid traditions help him live a different outlook on life.
“When you fast you feel like life is simple,” said Alajmi. “When I see someone that needs money, sometimes I would just walk by because I don’t support the fact that people should ask people for money but at that time you take it easy, you just appreciate life, you don’t judge, you don’t gossip, it’s a simple lifestyle.”
For Kays, adaptation was serious – she had to adapt to a life with cancer. Her religious roots have been key.
Before her diagnosis, she said she hadn’t experienced hard times in her life. Since then, she said she’s grown closer to God and has devoted everything to Him. She tries not to get caught up in the strife of dealing with cancer.
“There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.