Richard Schaub, Ph.D. discusses how spirituality and one’s mental and spiritual health play a role in a integrative medicine and one’s physical health.

Many years ago before spirituality had gained scientific acceptance as a component in health and healing, I worked as a rehabilitation counselor in the cardiology department of a major medical center.  Discussing the case of a very frightened patient who’d been admitted to the unit with his first heart attack, the cardiology director, a highly seasoned clinician, turned to me and said, “The devout religious do the best, the secular intellectuals do the worst.”

It is many years later, and we now have medical documentation to support the director’s clinical experience.  Spiritual connection and meaning, according to a review of the research by the Mayo Clinic, “…are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression, and suicide. Several studies have shown that addressing the spiritual needs of the patient may enhance recovery from illness.”

Spirituality can seem like one of those intangibles in a person’s health care: how can something seemingly so ethereal and abstract actually affect physical processes?  The quiet revolution of integrative medicine, however, turns the question upside down: how could positive spiritual thoughts and feelings not affect us?  We certainly accept that stress and fear cause demonstrable negative changes in our physical processes: it’s not much of a leap to consider that the inner peace, well-being and sense of meaning generated by spirituality contribute to positive physical changes.  At this point, it makes good common sense for each person to explore their own best path to a more active spirituality as part of a healthy lifestyle.  

That’s an easy prescription to give but hard to do.  In the continuing decline of mainstream religious membership, more and more people are left to their own devices in discovering a spiritual path that works for them.  The National Institutes of Health has gone so far as to suggest that “health care professionals should be catalysts and guides” in the patients’ exploration of mind-body skills and spirituality.  This opens exciting an new vista in the adjunctive and self-care health practices available to patients and in a new expansion of the patient-health provider relationship.  

Leading pioneers in integrative medicine, such as Larry Dossey, M.D., have been clear from the outset that spirituality needs to arrive fully into health care, and the very tradition of nursing is rooted in spiritual practice.  It is now time for the rest of us, patient and health provider alike, to catch up with the visionaries. 

Richard Schaub, Ph.D., is the co-author of The End of Fear: A Spiritual Path for Realists, Dante’s Path: A Practical Approach to Achieving Inner Wisdom and Healing Addictions: The Vulnerability Model of Recovery.  He can be reached at