Spirituality and Self-Control

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an easy way to have more self-control?

Imagine how different our daily lives would be if we could tolerate more discomfort, increase our patience, delay gratification, and refrain from impulsive responses.

All of these qualities were found to increase after subjects were primed with a spiritually oriented task in a study conducted by researchers from Queen’s University.

Participants were randomly assigned to either unscramble sentences that contained words like “God,” “divine,” or “spirit,” or sentences that contained spiritually neutral words.

Subjects then performed different tasks that put their self-control to the test.

Some participants drank an orange juice and vinegar concoction, receiving a nickel for every ounce they drank, to test their ability to endure discomfort.
spirituality and health
Other subjects were tested for their capacity to delay gratification. They had the choice of either receiving $5 on the spot or $6 if they could wait one week.

A third test measured how persistent participants were. They were asked to solve a puzzle designed to be impossible to finish, after they had already completed a mentally draining task.

No matter the task, researchers found that subjects who received the spiritual prime were better at maintaining their self-control than the control group.

If self-control increased from simply unscrambling spiritually oriented sentences, can we develop our own self-control through spiritual practices?

I think this study suggests we can.

How might this matter? It wouldn’t take me even 5 minutes to come up with a list of issues that require determination. Being more patient, having the persistence to stick to a diet or workout regimen, or the ability to moderate impulses are all practical tools.

You can find the entire study in Psychological Science.

In general, when I think of spirituality, I think in entirely other directions, but I thought you might find this study interesting.

This could be a pragmatic solution to developing these useful skills.

Meanwhile, we’ve put together a webinar series on Spirituality in Healing featuring some of the world’s top experts including Joan Borysenko, Ram Dass, and Caroline Myss.

The webinars are free to attend, you just need to sign up.

How do you think spirituality might help a patient increase their self-control? Please leave a comment below.

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26 Comments

  1. Lynne Treat says:

    The conscious application of the individual’s own concept of spirituality may contribute to a kind of clarity regarding the parameters of a given challenge, along with a sense of empowerment emanating from within (in humanistic spirituality) or without (from belief in a Higher Bering).

  2. Preeti ghosh says:

    I believe there is a distinction between being religious and being spiritual. To be spiritual means to believe in your self. No counseling can be effective if one has no fain in oneself.

  3. I know when a client taps into their spirituality or works on/questions what it is, they seem to find a more peaceful, grounded place to deal with life from. I see this over and over. It’s not about religion; it’s about tapping deep into the Self, being conscious of your own spirit and thus connecting to that energy/Akashic field/collective unconscious that connects us all.

  4. This was a very interesting study and I’ve heard of similar studies in the past. I think it is very interesting to relate self confidence with spirituality as the most confident people that I’ve meet have a strong spiritual base and they tend to develop these skills as they age. In my opinion, spirituality doesn’t have to be confusing or scary but if you have a strong sense of self and your connection with God then you will display confidence in every area of your life. Being a quiet observer is much more effective than being a person who talks simply to hear themselves talking. Spirituality is personal but powerful also.

  5. Mary Smyth says:

    I trained in Dublin, Ireland and part of my program for my MSc in integrative psychotherapy was the subject of psychosynthesis. This is a theory put forward by Roberto Assagioli in the nineteenth and is seen to be a marriage between spiritual and psychology or trans personal psychology. It is the invitation to hold psychology inclusive of all human experience is the gift of psychosynthesis. I use this in my work and I am looking forward to the upcoming seminars.

  6. Barbara Belton says:

    This conversation reminds me of a wonderful conference on this subject I attended many years ago when I heard Joan Borysenko in person for the first time. Definitely looking forward to hearing/seeing her again tomorrow!
    Our lunch speaker one day of the conference was the Swami Beyondanda (Steve Bhaerman) a gifted comedian and philosopher who shared this with us around the concept of ‘guru’. He had us all chanting and laughing this spell it rhyme: G (gee) U(you) R (are) U(you)~~~gee you are you…gee you are your own guru!

  7. Peace Warden says:

    The hardest thing for me was to give up my persistent way of being about my illusions in my life, never once dreaming or thinking that I was the cause of all that was going on outside of me and of course beyond my control since ” They” were the one who was the problem, giving me problems etc. My journey has not been pretty or easy but I consistently kept making choices that were set to create failure over and over again. I am in a critical mass situation right now, but it is how I am perceiving it that has changed so radically. My mind is calm, I am patient, filled with light and love, that only my highest good can be served from this situation. I am slowly coming out of fear and self doubt and learning to see each situation as a perception not a reality. So I know that all is well. I am loved, I am blessed, I am healed, I am prosperous first on the inside, then it will manifest in my experience. I am now consistent with my exercise program, I am now consistent in paying my bills and keeping my word. I am now forcefully looking at my way of being in my relationship or lack thereof with men and women. I chose to be alone, live alone and be without love, based on my perception of my world that I have built up over the years. so good at making everyone else wrong, and me foolish and alone. I am getting the big picture…… I am still on the trod.
    Peace Warden

  8. Mary Scott says:

    You have definitely aroused my curiosity

  9. DOROTHY CHAMBERS says:

    Joseph Maizlish is wonderful.

  10. DOROTHY CHAMBERS says:

    I did a sociology degree with emphasis on the study of religion. S o please answer, did the 2 groups come from a social background which had been religious or was still religious? where they matched with 2 other control groups for education? Would it be possible to find an ethical non religious group for comparison?
    There are issues which worry me about this. Not things you the researches are guilty of.
    The words chosen represent the ethical side of religion. Obedience is the place where religion is open to abuse. Much in religion is ethical. However the major 3 have rules on family structure, rape and obedience to parents not matched by any obligation for the parents to abstain from child cruelty. I don’t think I’d have done better than Moses if I was a man in the Bronze age. I can’t guarantee I’d be much better if I was a man now.
    Religion often still does include the above plus 10% of your income to the organization, unquestioned obedience to the org and very controlled education and worst the legitimation of the power structure the politics of the country.
    When anything during the last 40 years has been favourable to religion it is the narrow minded discipline controlling sections of religion which explote it by using it as proof alll what thy say is good.S please be careful and explain the ethical from obedience to organization or dogma.

  11. sophia sonen says:

    Another name for Buddha is forbearance. I’ve diligently chanted NAM-MYOHO-RENGE-KYO for 29 years. I can’t tell you how much I have expanded my life state! An example is that I’ve gone from being a complete pessimist and clinically depressed at age 43, after 2 marriages and a master’s degree, to being a total optimist and happy.

    I thought these e-mail messages were about using eft. Is that not true?

    Sophia Sonen

  12. Joan Foulks says:

    Belief encourages hope for a potentially favourable outcome and self control is a logical means of realising an expectation; e.g. “if you are a good girl, you will get an ice cream”.

  13. Tomilu Stuart says:

    All one has to do is look at 12 step programs and recovery to see how spirituality aids in self control.

  14. Joseph Maizlish says:

    What all the methods described have in common is the strengthening of the ability to pause, to give cortical activity a chance to catch up with the much faster-reacting limbic activity. Not really surprising that what we all have in common is a brain!

    We (therapists, clients, everyone) can train ourselves in this ability, model it for each other: the ability to use our whole brains, the ability to think in terms of our broader as well as our narrower selves, to assess actions and consequences, to think of present and future simultaneously, to sense all that is in us.

    A story:
    I proposed that a client working on “road rage” create a self-talk routine he could use in a pause before he climbed into a vehicle, perhaps putting his hand on the vehicle and telling himself whatever he thought would help. After several weeks of this he reported that he had “restrung my pleasure. [When someone cuts him off or does some other intrusive driving behavior] I sit back and get my pleasure from seeing him [sic] drive on ahead and out of my life.”

    Practice in things we call “small” helps us develop the ability to use it in other situations, including ones in which we recognize we have a tendency to “lose it,” or in a very apt phrase, “lose our minds.” I suggest to children and adults that they become aware of what they feel (especially the physical signals) when they’re about to make a mistake, and to talk about what they can do then. Without consciousness and being conversant with our physical selves, change doesn’t stand a chance.

    Our background is part of our training, as are the cultures in which we move. The modeling we witness in childhood, the way we are treated/mistreated and the way we have learned to respond. We come to today already trained in one way or another; with conscious effort and the support of whatever traditions we find helpful, we can modify that training.

  15. Elizabeth R says:

    I love reading the comments from around the world. It gives me a sense of Oneness
    with the world. It inspires me to continue my practice. It gives me hope that the evolutionary forces are at work moving the world towards the tipping point of healing change. Sometimes I see the earth floating in space in my meditations and contemplate all the particulars of our local lives in context of the Whole. There is awe and mystery around.

    I feel love and appreciation for the cumulative efforts of you who are working on yourselves. It supports my own. And thank you Ruth for making the focal point for
    this process. There is great shining beauty in it!

  16. Jodi says:

    Fascinating information…just when I needed it too. Maybe these Webinars can help me through a difficult time.
    Thank you,
    Jodi Shannahan

  17. Ellen Phelps says:

    There is a difference between religion and spirituality, which is obviously important to realize in a counselor who is representing many who are a-religious or from a variety of religions.
    I personally find building an awareness of Onenness, coming to understand the ego as a small part of Self, the wonder of Source has greatly enhanced my personhood and “psychological” integration and that of my clients. That said, myself and my clients are open to/desirous of this kind of orientation.

    The most powerful counselors in this domain must embody an authentically loving nature and spirit such as a Carl Rogers ( ironically, a humanist, but exuded an authentic love of people and life).
    Meditation, which harmonizes mind and builds awareness, and learning to be present in “the power of now” is integrating. For some, a sense of wonder and appreciation of the miracle and the beauty of Source has great truth and energy. Most important, is the aliveness and authenticity of the process between counselor and client. Final comment:, using spirituality as a technique is an oxymoron.

  18. Jean says:

    I do believe that spirituality can help persons to cope. Prayer, reading his word and meditating on its’ principles along with holy spirt from God can enable us to develop all qualities described above. I would not be able to be truly happy if my personal life were deviod of this element.

  19. jan loomis says:

    I have no doubt that when I take the responsibility to sit and meditate for some time each day, then log onto facebook and read the postings of friends who are also engaged on their spiritual paths, that I am better able to respond to my clients and my own feelings as they arise. Even the deep seated fear I was raised with is responsive to this and so I am free to create my own life and devote my energies as needed to my choices.

  20. Shirley says:

    Very interesting study, thank you. I have noticed when I have been consistent with my ‘practice’ that I feel more spiritually aligned and also noticed I am in better control of my days without effort. It is something I have noticed retrospectively – indicating that I haven’t been ‘trying’. I do not think I could have believed this if I had not experienced this within myself.

  21. Tzippi Moss says:

    What an interesting study! And those results came from simply unscrabbling words of a spiritual nature. Just imagine how much more powerful the effect could be if attention was placed on the higher perspective with more intention and focus. What else might we and our clients gain in terms of patience, wisdom, problem solving and self control? After some recent very powerful sessions with clients in which the spiritual perspective played a central role, my awe was rekindled for how quickly, creatively and magically change can happen. Intense rage and confusion, turned to patience and compassion. Who cares what we or those we work with call it. I have no doubt that a dose of the spiritual may just be the best daily multi-vitamin we could take for our health and wellbeing.

  22. Marty says:

    I think the spirituality label scares and confuses many people. To accomplish mindfulness you do not need to bow, or worship any man, rings bells or wear long robes.

    Just sitting quietly focused on the breath empty of thought will accomplish all that you ask and more. It takes time to train the mind to slow down and follow the breath. It takes time for the mind to know amd see that all that exists is this moment.

    If you can sit focused on the breath empty of thought and observe thoughts and emotions arrive, stay a while and leave, life opens up for us.. it becomes easier to let emotions and thoughts exist in their own. Our main issue is control we think we have and exert on life. .

    next use mindfulness to eliminate desires. if we can not judge things, people and ourselves we are free of doubt and worry to live fully.

    You can accomplish more than healing and calm from training the mind and then applying it when thoughts arrive.

    Thoughts are air without action. Thoughts and emotions are impermanent and such a small portion of the whole being. The ego is a golf ball compared to our true self.

    • Jodi says:

      Wow, Marty,
      Thank you for the wise words. You sound lie a Marty I used to take a meditation course with when I attended Long Beach State. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
      Love and Light
      Jodi

      • Marty says:

        Great comments, My comments about honoring a guru, Buddha etc was to try and break mindfulness down to the simplest form for clients. I meditated for four hours everyday stating with an hour at a local Zen center. The Zen center gave me some invaluable direction.

        Always sit with no goals expectations do not work. next always support others, sentient beings, taking all the focus off of ourselves. The main thing wrong with Zen centers for clients is the time and work needed on this path. I was told ten years just to learn how to meditate.

        No way a client is going to do that. So I developed this simple model so clients can use mindfulness from day one. It is concrete and has more senses involved. We want to reach a state where thoughts have faded and our focus in the breath has the mind following on this breathing track.

        Mindfulness applied at the very point of the trigger will Integrate some each time. PTSD is weakest at this firing point.
        http://ptsdawayout.com/2012/06/15/mindfulness-meditation-the-simplest-description-ever/

        http://ptsdawayout.com/2012/07/12/breathing-track-basics/

        In my opinion being a client who tried most therapies and holistic healers, we need a handout for daily work between sessions. I would hand out this breathing track with I structions first visit.

        The quicker we all find a way to deal with thoughts, practice mimdfulness which reduces cortisol. And activates the parasympathetic nervous system is key.

        Getting us to take action is the best action to move us from thinking or using victim behavior to healing. Simple things, concrete small skill,practice items are key.

        Your rate of healing clients will jump. You will feel better and your clients will be happy.
        Thanks for the compliments.

        Marty

    • Gertrude says:

      I believe it is essential to value and respect the tradition certain practices originate from and not to arrogantly separate them from it, making it a western accomplishment. Mindfulness is not. Jon Kabat Zinn conveys that respect. That said, i also believe we of the western culture should not indulge in guru’s but should walk independenly from those, maintaining our own strength, building resilience from our own gathered resources.
      That said, we of the western culture, should stop putting people on pedestals, as i so often notice in US seminars and should stop contributing to addicting young people to idols. Music is great, but making musicians into rockstars or idols is sick, so are beauty pageants for little girls, dressed up like whores, prostitutes and being emotionally blackmailed by mothers addicted to the attention. They can be watched now in the Netherlands, and i am just outraged how any adults in a culture can allow this taking place.
      Prayers and f.i. Gregorian chanting, also have a profound effect on the mind/brain. All traditions have valuable practices. And we should not copy anyone, as if we are rooted in those traditions. Being born and raised in one does not compare to adopting one. The latter almost always leading to a certain disrespectful, in my opinion, then again adopting to one’s western values. We can practice Mindfulness, value the gift of the tradition that rekindled it in us. And then remember all those in our own tradition, monks, nuns, wise women/witches, sibylls and mystics, who practiced similarly long contemplations and prayers.
      That said, the pope, and more and more priests of other christian traditions also wear long robes. Strange phenomene. Breeding alienation and separation. Making me wonder what is behind it, what it means. Being similarly dressed in a culture, enhances cohesion. Not too similar, not like the suits of Mao though. When attending a live seminar by Thich Nhat Hanh, i felt very discomforted, possibly even scared of, by seeing women on the podium acting in the most submissive ways. Sickening my heart, having been once a radical feminist, and still a strong defender of the necessesity of equality of women and men, the absence of all racism etc.

      • Marty says:

        I am not trying to disrespect the tradition of any sect but labeling how we can use focusing on our breath is worthless to me.

        first, I do not care or am I obligated to anyone who has ever lived to use my breath in a certain way.

        Arrogance is your judgment not mine. I can follow my breath any way I would like with absolute freedom.

        See mindfulness/meditation is so misunderstood. It boils down to just following the breath which we all can do exactly how we like. no ine has ownership of out life force our breath.

        As therapist I would hope you would advocate for freedom and,openness not ridgedity of walls built to rule us.

        Any therapist can use mindfulness the way they desire. I describe it as a focus exercise. Meditation as you see has this connotation about who owns it and rules how to use it. There are no rules.

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