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The Important Roles of Religiosity and Spirituality in the Healing of Japan

By Brendan McLean

The most difficult part of recovery from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan will not be the reconstruction of houses and clearing of land that was devastated but rather the rebuilding of the country's emotional and mental well-being. After traumatic events happen to large populations, research has found that religion and spirituality have an influence on positive health outcomes. Religious participation is believed to aid in recovery by allowing a person to relate to a greater perceived system of social support and greater meaning.

Studying differences in a population affected by the same tragedy is beneficial because it controls for the type of event experienced. However, as with most events, tragic or otherwise, individuals will experience an event differently because of their subjective experience and outlook. This should be noted when looking at studies analyzing the benefits of faith in recovery.

A recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, followed 890 people who experienced another horrific event, Sept. 11. Following these individuals whom were affected by the Sept. 11 attacks for three years revealed that those who engaged in religious social structures and attended services after a traumatic event had higher positive emotions, fewer cognitive intrusions about the negative event, and a decreased probability of developing new mental or physical ailments.

Distinguishing this study from others that have focused on the value of faith in recovery is that the researchers made a distinction between the concepts of religiosity and spirituality. Religiosity was identified by the researchers as traditional, institutionally related practices and behaviors. Spirituality was defined as the subjective, personal beliefs and lived-out commitment to those spiritual or religious beliefs. Spirituality can occur within and outside established religious practices.

While both religiosity and spirituality predicted higher positive affect, they did so in different manners. Those who were rated as having high religiosity had fewer cognitive intrusions connected to the event but experienced a slower decline in the rate of the occurrence of intrusions over time compared to those with levels of high spirituality.

The researchers hypothesize that the higher initial levels of intrusive thoughts associated with high spirituality may be a consequence of individuals commonly processing traumatic events with a great degree of intensity. A subsequent reason for the difference in initial levels of intrusion might be a result of people who are high in spirituality being disposed to integrating events into their belief system, which could regardless of their level of religious participation.

Greater religiosity also predicted fewer reports of diagnosed mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety. The level of spirituality was uncorrelated to the number of diagnoses by physicians.

Much of Japan may rely heavily on religion and spirituality in the healing process of this tragedy. Japan is more collectivistic in nature and focuses on the importance of group experiences and goals, compared to individual accolades, and therefore, may be likely to rely on aspects of group support found in religious and spiritual activities. However, there still exists a strong stigma against mental illness in Japan and many are ashamed to seek help regardless of the importance that community plays.

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