Spiritual Wellbeing Is Mental Wellbeing

More than 50% of Americans will experience a mental health crisis at some point in life. Unlike with the COVID virus, there is no vaccine to immunize us against mental illness. I know this from personal experience. As a college student and later as a young adult, I struggled with my mental wellbeing. I know all too well how stressful, overwhelming, and anxiety producing it is for many college students —especially during the past couple years when so many have experienced unrelenting challenges and change.

With May as Mental Health Awareness Month, we here at the Fish Interfaith Center strive to support your mental health and spiritual wellbeing. We believe that your mental wellbeing is deeply connected to your spiritual wellbeing.

Yet, many young adults come to us feeling mentally and spiritually broken—lacking a sense of belonging, and struggling to respond to and connect with others due to empathy fatigue and emotional numbing. We remain committed to support you on your journey of self-exploration, inspiring you to flourish at college and beyond.

Cultivating Your “Spiritual Brain”

A growing body of research is beginning to reveal a remarkable feature about the developing brains of young adults. Between the age of 18-25, we experience a “biological clock” for spiritual wellbeing, igniting a surge to seek life’s greatest truths. This “spiritual brain” is hard-wired for existential and spiritual emergence that can often bring about emotional struggle—even developmental depression and anxiety.

Last month, colleagues and I presented at Columbia University’s “Spirituality, Mind, Body” Institute. The theme was “spirituality & mental health on college campus.” The conclusion from the conference is that the mental health crisis rampant on college campus exposes a pervasive and fundamental “spiritual and existential crisis” among young adults, who are struggling to seek a sense of meaning and ultimate purpose in life.

The emerging “science of spirituality” reveals how spirituality is foundational to fostering adult whole-person development. An integral component of any mental health and wellness initiative must include programs that foster spiritual growth.

Research equally affirms how nurturing your spiritual identity generates greater empathy, compassion, and tolerance. They appear to be developed neurocognitive skills, deepened by reflective inquiry and spiritual practice that can be imprinted into the brain to advance resilience and wellbeing at school and in life.

Growing from Grief, Transforming from Trauma

Adversity and suffering are an invitation for spiritual growth. As a young adult, I was taught to believe that failure and setbacks are to be avoided. The contrary now holds to be true. Grief, loss, and crisis are undeniable elements of the human experience. The concept of “post-traumatic growth” reveals how we can experience resilience from adversity and suffering. It is often not easy. But the effort is worth the reward. Cultivating your spiritual identity and examining the inner terrain of your being fortify your spiritual brain.

A recently published article outlines some of the many positive aspects of spirituality on mental health. These include:

  • Feeling a higher sense of purpose, peace, hope, and meaning
  • Experiencing better confidence, self-esteem, and self-control
  • Helping you make sense of your experiences in life
  • Belonging to a spiritual community supports you in times of crisis
  • Enjoying better relationships with yourself and others

Below are some other strategies adapted from new discoveries in brain science and timeless spiritual wisdom to help you cope in the face of adversity and strife.

Be Adaptive, Not Reactive to Change

When your outside world feels out of control, learn to control your inside world. Navigating change is never easy. Our brains evolved to seek safety, security, and stability as a survival strategy. While change is inevitable, the pandemic has accelerated social interactive change to unprecedented levels. Whether it’s a health scare, personal loss, financial hardship, or uncertainty about the future, it’s natural to experience anxiety, grief, and a lack of feeling in control.

The concept of “neuroplasticity” reveals how we have the ability to rewire and retrain the brain to be more adaptive to change. Contemplative practices, such as meditation or mindful breathing, empower us to be less reactive to uncertainty. Together, science and spirituality provide solutions for coping with crisis.

Focus on What Works for You

Don’t compare yourself to how others are acclimating to life. Go at your own pace and don’t fret if you’re still striving to resume a “normal” return to life. It’s a gradual process that will not be a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Establish a routine or set up a plan to help make the return to life simple and smooth. Your brain evolved to register negative experiences more strongly than positive ones. Your “risk-tolerance” is going to be different moving forward. It takes practice and discipline to focus on the positive and overcome your brain’s evolutionary drive to be risk-averse in social, school and work environments. Be kind to your mind.

Mental Health Isn’t an On/Off” Switch, It’s a Dimmer Switch

View your mental health as a journey, not a destination. Find your own “dimmer switch” to help you cope and navigate the challenges of life. Humans are social beings that require connection and community to thrive, yet, the past 18 months of isolation and quarantine have created an imbalance in your Social Brain. Many of us are going to need time to process grief and loss. It’s OK if you feel anxious or depressed. These are normal aspects of life. Know how to modulate your own dimmer switch to let your light shine.

Always have the courage to let your light shine forth fully and brightly. The world is a much brighter place with you in it.


Dr. Jay Kumar
Director of Wellbeing, Chapman University

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