Kirkpatrick and Shaver (1990) identified three occasions when people generally look to God/Higher Power for comfort: (a) separation or threat of separation from an attachment figure, (b) unexpected natural disasters or environmental events; and (c) times of illnesses. A diagnosis of a chronic illness does more than impact the physical health of the individual. It affects all areas of the person’s life, and during these stressful times, one may look to an attachment figure for strength (Narayanasamy, 2002). Women who prescribe to a form of spirituality report a greater sense of comfort; a sense of meaning and opportunity for self-discovery (Albaugh, 2003); and higher self esteem, a sense of belonging, and sustained health behavior (Musgrave et al., 2002). Research has also supported a positive outcome for individuals with a religious affiliation, including higher rates of longevity, better quality of life, long term well-being, life satisfaction, psychological well-being (Musgrave et al., 2002), and fewer mood disorders leading to less anxiety, depression, and suicide (Mueller et al., 2001). These individuals who are using their faith report a greater sense of hope; and through prayer and trusting in God/Higher Power, they build a more solid foundation for coping with the disease (Narayanasamy, 2002). Correlational research investigating the spirituality and chronic illnesses has shown a reduction in cardiovascular deaths (Powell et al., 2003) and a renewed sense of hope and a positive outlook for patients living with AIDS (Albaugh, 2003). In addition, spirituality has had a crucial role in giving meaning to patients with terminal cancer (Albaugh, 2003), including mitigating the demands of colorectal cancer (Narayanasamy, 2002).
There are several reasons why a positive relationship exists between spirituality and chronic illnesses. First, the very nature of religion-spirituality is to guide humans in the “right” way to live. Spirituality-religion often involves the elimination of inappropriate or damaging behaviors and encourages believers to live a healthier lifestyle. Along with avoiding risky lifestyle behaviors such as alcohol and drug use (Musgrave, et al., 2002; Rifkin, Doddi, Karagji, & Pollack, ), religiously involved persons are more likely to embrace health-promoting behaviors such as eating a proper diet or eliminating pork products, seeking preventive services, and being compliant with treatment (Mueller, et al., 2001). Second, in addition to a healthier lifestyle, religion encourages the use of prayer as a means of privately communicating with God/Higher Power (Narayanasamy, 2002). Prayer and mantras can create a sense of calm, trigger parasympathetic relaxation, and decrease stress (Powell, et al. , 2003). As believers engage in prayer, a sense of comfort or calm may come over them (Kirkpatrick, 1999), because prayer or other rituals allow individuals to believe their petitions are being heard and to hope that soon their hearts and bodies will be healed.
Although research has identified positive affects of spirituality-religion on chronic illnesses, spirituality-religion may also have potentially negative impact on the healthcare needs of patients. Some religions forbid the use of medical transfusions for patients needing blood, while most religions forbid medical treatment that may jeopardize the life of an unborn fetus to save the life of the mother. Additionally, some women rely on prayer instead of seeking traditional treatments (Koenig, 2002). In the case of women with breast cancer, research has shown that some religious women have delayed treatment or medical care (Long, 1993) and avoided effective preventive health measures (Klonoff & Landrine, 1996; Powell et al., 2003). Some women may rely so heavily on the healing power of God/Higher Power that anything beyond total success may result in the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations and lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, and isolation (Mueller, et al., Plevak, & Rummans, 2001). Physicians and psychologists, who have an understanding of the religious practices and beliefs of their patients prior to creating treatment plans (Mueller et al., 2001), can address any dysfunctional views that may delay or negate the benefits of medical treatment (Cooper, Brown, Vu, Ford, & Powe, 1998). Understanding patients’ religious views may have particular relevance when working with women.