Having ITP can be stressful. While there are many tangible ways to relieve stress—including exercise, living a healthy lifestyle or just talking with friends—a less tangible approach through spirituality can be just as useful. Spirituality refers to a person’s inner life--his or her understanding of the world that helps to provide meaning and purpose to existence. Once predominantly linked to religious practices and ideals, the spiritual world has broadened over time to encompass a wider range of profound beliefs, including feelings of deep connection with all living creatures, nature and the arts.
Spirituality is also the source of values, providing impetus for acts of compassion, generosity and self-sacrifice. Every culture since ancient times has developed ways of thinking about and dealing with aspects of the spirit. It is an essential aspect of one's humanity, and often helps generate the strength, faith and hope that is needed to respond to life’s challenges.
For people who are dealing with the challenges of ITP, bringing a spiritual dimension to coping with the rare bleeding disorder may help lighten the burden. While spirituality does not guarantee good health, studies suggest that it can have a measureable positive effect on healing in many people. A spiritual approach to ITP is meant to complement conventional medical treatment, not replace them.
How does a person’s spirituality affect illness?
Serious illness often leads someone to ponder aspects of the spirit: the nature of self, the meaning of life and what happens when we pass away. The way someone handles these and other profound questions can influence their healing. Thousands of studies have examined the relationship between spirituality and health. Often these studies use regular attendance at a place of worship rather than a more complicated definition of spirituality. But even by this simplified measure, the studies demonstrate that a spiritual connection can have a positive effect on many aspects of health.
For example, one review of over 11,000 studies on spirituality and health found a 60 to 80 percent association between higher levels of spirituality in patients and better outcomes in a number of health conditions. These conditions included cancer, heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, hypertension, dysfunction of the immune system, pain, disability and mortality.9
Of all the complementary approaches to health, the spiritual activity of prayer is the most frequently practiced. More than half of adults have prayed for better health.2 Prayer can change the brain. It can fire up the frontal lobe (a brain region involved in higher-level thinking, planning and reasoning) and quiet the parietal lobe (a region of the brain involved in processing sensory information), promoting a sense of calm.7 It can quiet the immune system as measured by levels of IL-6, a marker of inflammation,8,11 and improve the cardiovascular system, at least for non-smokers.6 The social support received at places of worship, such as mosques, synagogues and churches, helps people cope with difficulties.10 Research suggests that people who are more spiritual (as measured by attendance at a place of worship) live longer3 and that the deeper the commitment to a spiritual life someone has, the greater the benefit.13
In PDSA’s 2001 “Survey of Non-Traditional Treatments for ITP” about 41 percent of the people questioned said they used prayer to help improve their ITP. Of these, nearly half felt that prayer helped them and 25 percent felt it had a sustained positive effect on their platelet count and their bleeding symptoms.
Many people want to discuss their spiritual beliefs with their physicians and this desire increases with the severity of their illness.1,12 For many people with ITP, such a discussion might be very helpful. But spiritual beliefs are often a difficult topic to discuss for both patients and doctors. Now more than 100 medical schools offer courses on spirituality and health and some publish guides to help both physicians and patients ease the conversation.
Can spirituality have a negative effect?
A 2001 panel sponsored by the National Institutes of Health found that "Religious people who become upset by the belief that God has abandoned them or who become dependent on their faith, rather than their medical treatment, for recovery may inadvertently subvert the success of their recovery."4 One study of HIV patients suggests that those who considered God judgmental and punishing rather than loving and benevolent had a faster disease progression.5 Another study concluded that individuals faced with a significant negative life event, such as a health crisis, who viewed the event as God’s punishment or who harbored excessive guilt had a more difficult time coping with their condition.14
1. Ehman JW et al. “Do patients want physicians to inquire about their spiritual or religious beliefs if they become gravely ill?” Arch Intern Med. 1999 Aug 9-23;159(15):1803-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10448785
2. Glazer S. “Can spirituality influence health?” Prayer and Healing. January 14, 2005 , vol. 15-2.
3. Gillum RF et al. “Frequency of Attendance at Religious Services and Mortality in a U.S. National Cohort.” Ann Epidemiol. 2008 February; 18(2): 124–129. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2659561/
4. Helliker K. “Body and Spirit: Why Attending Religious Services May Benefit Health.” The Wall Street Journal. May 3, 2005. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB111507405746322613
5. Ironson G et al. “View of God as benevolent and forgiving or punishing and judgmental predicts HIV disease progression.” J Behav Med. 2011 Dec;34(6):414-25. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21340531
6. King DE et al. “The relationship between attendance at religious services and cardiovascular inflammatory markers.” Int J Psychiatry Med. 2001;31:415–425. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11949739
7. Kluger J. “The Biology of Belief.” Time Magazine. Feb 12, 2009. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1879179-1,00.html
8. Koenig HG, et al. “Attendance at religious services, interleukin-6, and other biological parameters of immune function in older adults.” Int J Psychiatry Med. 1997;27(3):233-50. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9565726
9. Koenig et al. Handbook of Religion and Health, 2nd edition p. xiv Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handbook_of_Religion_and_Health
10. Krause N. “Church-based social support and mortality.” J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2006;61:S140–S146. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16399948
11. Lutgendorf SK, “Religious participation, interleukin-6, and mortality in older adults.” Health Psychol. 2004 Sep;23(5):465-75. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15367066
12. MacLean CD, et al. “Patient preference for physician discussion and practice of spirituality.” J Gen Intern Med. 2003 Jan;18(1):38-43. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12534762
13. McCullough ME et al. “Religious involvement and mortality: a meta-analytic review.” Health Psychol. 2000 May;19(3):211-22. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10868765
14. Pargament KI,et al. “The many methods of religious coping: development and initial validation of the RCOPE.” J Clin Psychol. 2000 Apr;56(4):519-43. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10775045