Spiritual: Sense of purpose gives us the will to keep going
Of the four pieces of the total fitness puzzle, spiritual fitness might be the most difficult to define. For some, spirituality is a belief in a power operating in the universe that is greater than oneself. For others, it’s a sense of interconnectedness with all living creatures. For still others, it’s an awareness of the purpose and meaning of life.
Viktor Frankl, who spent years in a concentration camp and wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” defined spirituality as “the very essence of who we all are as human beings. It is the source of our life, our being … that dimension that brings meaning to our lives.”
While people may define spirituality differently, there is a growing consensus among health-care professionals that spirituality plays a role in a person’s overall fitness.
“Spiritual practices tend to improve coping skills and social support, foster feelings of optimism and hope, promote healthy behavior, reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, and encourage a sense of relaxation,” according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. “By alleviating stressful feelings and promoting healing ones, spirituality can positively influence immune, cardiovascular, hormonal and nervous systems.”
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ralph DeVaul, who works with Air Force Reserve Command’s Yellow Ribbon program, has counseled hundreds of service members over the years and has seen first-hand how spirituality can have a positive impact on a person’s health, especially for Reservists.
“Citizen Airmen live in two interesting and demanding worlds,” the chaplain said. “This dual life places demands and expectations not appreciated by ‘just’ citizens or on the other side by our regular Air Force counterparts. The trauma and tempo of war, the recurring deployments, watching a close friend be wounded or killed, the continued separation from family and friends — these can and do take an emotional, psychological and physical toll on us all.
“All of these things can have devastating spiritual consequences, resulting in anger at God, moral injury, and a loss of hope and faith. In the worst case, individuals may experience a hopelessness and helplessness that can lead to suicide or other destructive behaviors.”
Chaplain DeVaul believes spirituality is multi-dimensional and interconnected with a person’s physical, mental and social fitness.
“Spirituality is an individual thing,” he said. “For some people, religion is part of their spirituality. For others, it is not. But spirituality is a lifelong journey. It is subject to change over time. A person can experience periods of intense growth following a difficult time or traumatic event. While spirituality is an individual thing, there might be ways to improve your spiritual fitness.”
Chaplain DeVaul offers the following tips:
  • Conduct a spiritual self-assessment. Ask yourself the following questions:
    • Do you consider yourself spiritual or religious?
    • Do you have spiritual beliefs that help you cope with stress?
    • What gives you meaning in life?
    • What importance does your faith or beliefs have in your life?
    • Have your beliefs influenced how you handle stress?
    • Are you part of a spiritual or religious community?
    • Is this of support to you? How?
    • Is there a group of people you really love or who are important to you?
    • How should I address these issues in my quest for holistic well-being?
  • Talk to a helping professional. “Consider talking to a military chaplain,” Chaplain DeVaul said. “They are trained to ‘meet people where they are’ regardless of religious affiliation.” And, they are especially trained to assist individuals with moral, ethical, spiritual and religious questions. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a chaplain, find another counselor who can help you contemplate life’s difficulties from a spiritual perspective.
  • Keep a journal. Since there is an interconnection between the body, mind and spirit, consider journaling as a method of documenting psychological, spiritual and emotional events and the thoughts and emotions associated with these events.
  • Take part in leisure activities. Leisure activities can serve as healing or calming events, contributing to a person’s spiritual growth. Wilderness experiences, for example, can allow individuals to relax and connect with nature, their inner self and other people. Getting back to nature can take your mind off of everyday stress and put you in an environment that inspires greater self-awareness.
  • Attend a Yellow Ribbon event. “If you are eligible, I would highly encourage you to attend a Yellow Ribbon event,” Chaplain DeVaul said. “There are elements of leisure incorporated into the reintegration portion of Yellow Ribbon events around the country. In addition, there are resources available to help you work on your spiritual fitness.”
  • Share your experiences. Consider sharing your journal and/or spiritual discoveries with a helping professional or organization, such as a chaplain, pastor, church, synagogue or mosque. Your experience could help others who are trying to improve their spiritual fitness.

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