spirituality to cope with pain

Do you use Spirituality to cope with pain?


Never in a million years would have thought I’d be talking about spirituality. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what the difference was…..being spiritual was kind of the same as being religious, so I shied away from it. I didn’t really relate with being religious. And it felt like if I was going to be spiritual, I would also have to be religious. And I especially shied away from the conversation with my patients.

So let me ask you. Do you consider yourself to be Religious? Do you consider yourself to be Spiritual but not Religious? Do you not relate to either of those?

I will offer that by the end of this, you may all relate to the concept of being in the least, Spiritual. And may consider that Spiritual practices are what help us cope–with pain, with grief, with anger, with our purpose on this planet.


You may have heard of the Biopsychosocial model of healthcare. I will posit that the missing part of this in our health system is the lost conversation of the Spiritual. Perhaps it’s fear about not knowing what to say. Or perhaps we worry about infringing on religious beliefs. Or perhaps we just never figured this into the mix.


Amy Walchholtz, PhD, a researcher from the University of Massachusetts, studies just these concepts. She says, the biopsychosocial-spiritual model seeks to discover the role that religious & spiritual belief systems play in:¹

  • the appraisal process

  • the development of hope, optimism, self efficacy

  • the ability to tolerate and accept disease and pain


Truth. So what is the difference between Religion and Spirituality?


I’ve culled some of the different descriptions/definitions that Wachholtz describes in her paper.

  • Definition of Spirituality = the basic human experience of seeking understanding, meaning, strength, & transcendence, the desire to go beyond (Sheehan, 2005)

  • Definition of Religiousness = participation in the institutionally sanctioned beliefs & activities of a particular faith group (Peterman, 2002)

  • Define Spiritual coping strategies as more than Religious because they involve relationship with Self, Others, God, or Nature. While illness takes away control, Spiritual coping strategies enhance self-empowerment (Baldacchino & Draper, 2001)

  • Defined Spirituality = “an individual & open approach in the search for meaning & purpose in life, as a search for transcendental truth which may include a sense of connectedness with others, nature &/or the divine” (Bussing, Ostermann, & Matthiessen, 2008)


Bussing, et al, utilized the SpREUK Test, which measures conventional religious practice, nature oriented practice, existentialistic practice, unconventional spiritual practice, and humanistic practice, to know how patients find meaning & purpose in their lives in the face of life threatening disease.


Finding Meaning and Hope

Here were the results from 257 respondents with life threatening disease:

›79% claimed to be working on their well-being by:

(a) working on their spiritual development (83%)

(b) reflecting on the meaning of life (75%)

(c) trying to achieve insight (67%)

(d) making an effort for others (75%)

(e) conveying positive attitudes to others (67%)

(f) being aware of how they treat the world around them (96%)

(g) by seeking to have a healing effect on the environment (65%)

Once you see these results of what it is to be Spiritual, have you changed your mind about your relationship with that concept?


When we consider the above to be ways we describe the actions of Spirituality, then we might be able to better relate to being Spiritual.



Do you ever consider how we are connected to those around us and to distant lands? Or to our environment?


From the food that you last ate, consider it’s entire pathway to get to your plate. The land that it came from (or factory) to the person that picked it, to its packaging, to it’s delivery to the store, to the checker that took your money when you bought it, to it being on you plate, to it being in your mouth. Or the clothes that we wear.


Considering the raw materials and how they were processed, to the the person or machine that made it, to the person that packaged it, to the person that transported it by bus, plane or boat, to the loading dock, to the store, to the checker, and finally to your body.


Stories of how US consumption of quinoa of late has made things difficult for Peruvian farmers. To stories of increased use of palm oil in food production, leading to destruction of the rain forest. To stories of beef consumption causing the rise in methane gas, leading to reduction of our protective ozone.


We can probably think of many ways we are connected to the world around us.


So how we treat the environment depends on the food we eat, the clothes we wear, our consumption of all kinds and it’s relation to humans from all corners of the Earth. This is being Spiritual.


And it doesn’t have to be all negative. Many of us also feel very connected to the Earth by being out in Nature. The sense that the plants and trees, the animals, the water are all part of us and this ever changing ecosystem.


We provide CO2 for the plants and they in turn supply the very oxygen we need to sustain life. The animals support the plants, the water supports us all. This connection is also being Spiritual.


Purpose and Connection

And might your desire to know and/or understand your purpose in this life, also be a Spiritual practice? When we’ve lost connection to our identity through the process of illness or injury, many of us also lose our sense of purpose.


My patients that can no longer feed themselves, or speak their desires, or use their hands to wipe their own eyes from tears….this creates a sense of loss.


Spiritual practices can help to bring us out of this loss. There is a term in Sanskrit, Tat Tvam Asi, “I am that.” Or seeing oneself in the other. That at any point, I could see myself in the person in front of me.


We may be from different backgrounds, or different belief system, or may come from a different knowledge base, but we are inherently human. And their predicament could easily be my own.


I took part in a practice that was a lived experience of this all in one hour… I will forever remember it.


It was at Chopra Center in San Diego. I was attending a meditation retreat. It was literally just a day after my friend was murdered by her boyfriend. So I was especially raw and open.


They call the experience, the “Namasté Ceremony.” Namasté represents the idea that all are one. It affirms that beneath the outer trappings that make you appear different from others, you are made of the same stuff.


You are more the same than you are different. And this practice was the lived experience of this term. Four hundred of us were all in a very large room in a very large circle. The circles began to become two as you went to the person next to you, held their hands and looked into their eyes for 8 seconds. No words, no greetings. Just touch and gaze. Then the bell would chime and you would move to the next person.


Same thing, hands touching, gazing into their eyes, no words.  went through shifting from the thought that this person looks just like my friend, so and so. And this person looks sad and I would tear up. Or I would be tearing up and the other person would join me. It was intense. And the term Namasté, has so much meaning now.


Eight seconds each, 400 connections. A Spiritual practice like no other I’ve ever experienced.


If everyone in pain, in suffering, of differing beliefs could engage in this practice all over the world, I believe we would have less shootings, less war, less strife between political parties. We would see each other as inherently connected and one and the same.



We would then be able to find purpose in being of service to each other. To act in kindness towards one another. To volunteer your time, your service, your presence to another. To help out another human in need whether they were black, white, yellow, brown….rich, or poor……your religion, my religion, no religion.


This is being Spiritual.


So I ask again. Do you consider yourself to be Spiritual?

How will you use this superpower to guide you in time of anguish? In times of pain? In times of hopelessness? In times of distrust and disappointment?

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I welcome your feedback and if you find this information helpful, please share with your colleagues and your friends. I would love to hear how you use Spirituality and/or Religion to help you cope.  Contact Tianna if you are yearning for ways to find a Spiritual connection to help with pain, suffering and loss of sense of self.


  1. Lysne, C.J.; Wachholtz, A.B. Pain, Spirituality, and Meaning Making: What Can We Learn from the LiteratureReligions 2011, 2, 1-16.

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I was touched by your story. I wanted you to know that I took your pain class a couple years ago, and it helped me immensely. Not only is my body now more limber so I have less pain, but I know how to work with stretching to relieve the pain and with my mind to stop the panic cycle. It has made a huge  difference.–Joan