I haven’t been to church for many years, but meditation, prayer and ritual continue to help me manage my pain.
I was born and raised as a Protestant for the first 20 years of my life. When I started college, I lived away from family for the first time and had opportunities to discover new lifestyles and question my own. It was also around this time that I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
I was conflicted between a new sense of freedom at college, yet fearful of the constraints that my diagnosis might have on my life. This affected me in many different ways, and I often found myself sleeping in on Sunday mornings instead of going to church.
My final church attendance came when I was 26 years old. I no longer believed in the church structure at that time but my faith remained intact.
In more recent years, I have come to embrace my Christian upbringing and my African religious background. They have taught me about certain practices that I regularly use to cope with pain from my RA. I often meditate, pray, and create rituals, especially when I’m having flare-ups.
Meditation is an activity that trains your awareness and attention. It is associated with achieving mental clarity and emotional stability. In fact, practices in meditation have been shown to retrain the brain!
Meditation has roots in many religions, most notably in Buddhism. But it has become far more widespread and there are lots of different types of meditation that don’t belong to any religion or faith in particular — it’s not just about saying “om”!
I have learned how to meditate through the guidance of Black spiritualists who fuse different components of religion, mostly Christianity and African spirituality, into new practices. I meditate with the aid of a guided playlist and with incense to help me stay focused.
As its popularity has increased, many studies have focused on the effects of mindfulness meditation on pain. For example, a review from 2019 reported that experienced meditators were less sensitive to pain than a control population. It’s even been suggested that it could be a viable alternative to cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment and management of chronic pain.
Check out more of the benefits of meditation here.
For me, meditation provides a sense of calm and space. I feel as though I can coexist with my pain and work through it, rather than letting the pain overwhelm and control me.
Prayer is a more common type of meditation used in Christianity.
I believe in the power that prayer has in making people feel better about their situation.
Prayer is my go-to during moments of debilitating pain. When I cannot manage to practice my usual more immersive meditative activities, I pray. It helps me to move through the pain and it helps me focus on something else.
A recent study from 2019 concluded that prayer significantly helped pain tolerance via cognitive positive re-appraisal. This is a process by which stressful events are reconstructed as neutral or even beneficial.
Prayer provides me with a way to externalize the pain, to talk through it, placing the power of my pain in the hands of something bigger than my body.
I always try to make time for meditation, including prayer. In this way, they become rituals in my life.
I follow moon cycles to help me stick to a more structured spiritual practice for meditation. In this cycle, I engage with longer meditation moments on certain days. I tidy up my home and work spaces, light candles, sage, and incense, and play music that speaks to me at that moment.
By making some of my meditative practices more ritualistic, they take on more meaning and I’m more likely to engage with them. This acts as a management technique, where consistency is key for pain management.
For others living with chronic pain, religion and spirituality may play different roles. Some may have discovered religious practices after a diagnosis, some may find solace within the religious structure they were born in, while others may have left the structure and discarded the practices. I talked to two friends living with arthritis, Timothy and Thandie, to learn about what role religion plays for them.
Timothy is a lifelong Christian who, after 40 years of his life, left a traditional Christian church due to feeling that his spiritual needs were not being met. After his arthritis diagnosis, one of his children invited him to their Pentecostal church.
He explained that they took a different approach to health: “I loved that they talked about day-to-day life and offered support for unwell people. I also loved that they did not shrug about pain.”
It isn’t only about one weekly service. I have a church community that’s present throughout the week.
Continuing, he explained: “Becoming Pentecostal has helped me with pain management. My church emphasizes that there’s power in the tongue, so even if I wake up in pain, I acknowledge the pain but I speak life over it. I pray believing that the pain won’t last forever.”
For Timothy, this new church environment offered more than religious teaching. He was amazed at the community he had developed. “It isn’t only about one weekly service. I have a church community that’s present throughout the week. I can call someone whenever I am in pain and they will pray when I can’t or they will show up at my house.”
A study from 2017 found that people who attended church more frequently were 55 percent less likely to die during the 18-year follow-up period compared with nonchurchgoers. A present and committed community is so important when you live with a chronic condition.
Timothy explained that “without religion, I don’t think I would have this support.”
Like Timothy, Thandie was also brought up religious. She was raised in the Catholic church, but her church attendance has dwindled as she’s grown older. Despite this, her Catholic faith has continued to play a role in how she handles pain.
She said: “I pray a lot. I believe praying has helped me to remain hopeful. Without the belief in something greater than me that listens, I don’t think I would have survived my prediagnosis days. That was the hardest period for me because I was in pain and had no clue about what was causing it. I turned to prayer a lot back then.”
Without the belief in something greater than me that listens, I don’t think I would have survived my prediagnosis days.
Concluding, Thandie said: “Even if there are a lot of things I hate about my religion, it has saved my life on this journey.”
Whatever your religion or spirituality, there’s something powerful about a belief system to provide hope in times of uncertainty and pain.
Religion, spirituality, and pain management go hand-in-hand for millions of people globally. Dealing with chronic conditions often causes people to start looking at their faith differently, or even consider religious practices for the first time.
I might not subscribe to organized religion anymore, but I am thankful that it provided me with a stepping-stone to spirituality. It gave me the tools to use meditation, ritual, and prayer. These have helped me manage my pain in ways that medication can’t.
Fact checked on August 10, 2022
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