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How to Reawaken Your Spirit and Connect with Nature

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Spiritual Retreats Produce Changes in the Brain

Science is thankfully showing that spirituality in the new millennium is no longer a luxury; rather, it is a necessity for both our physical and mental health. In recent years, scientists have found that practices that enhance our spirituality (such as yoga and meditation) have a wealth of benefits, especially in the area of stress relief, but also in terms of soothing pain, improving concentration and memory, and increasing energy levels. Such is the stress relieving power of yoga, that it is currently used as a complementary therapy in cancer recovery, rehabilitation for substance abuse, and eating disorder recovery (to name just a few medical settings). One new study, meanwhile, focuses on the important brain changes that spiritual retreats can bestow.

Spiritual Retreats and Feel-Good Chemicals

Researchers from Thomas Jefferson University discovered that spending time in a spiritual retreat, produces important changes in the dopamine and serotonin systems in the brain. The latter play an important role in the reward and emotional systems of the brain. They work side by side and when levels of either are low, we can feel depressed or anxious.

Why Do We Sometimes Suffer from Depression?

Serotonin is commonly referred to as the ‘feel-good neurotransmitter’. When its levels are low, we can suffer from mood fluctuations, sugar cravings, insomnia, and a sometimes overwhelming feeling of sadness. In severe cases, suicidal thoughts and even aggressiveness can result.

When dopamine (‘the thinking neurotransmitter’) is lacking, we can feel ‘foggy in the brain’, take longer to react, feel unmotivated or have memory problems. Although depression can arise when either serotonin or dopamine levels are skewed, when both are affected, thinking and mood alike can be hampered.

How Can Spiritual Retreats Help?

Simply believing in a higher power has been found to increase general wellbeing and happiness, but when we pursue spiritual matters in the great outdoors, as we do when we go on our retreat, the benefits are magnified. In the above-mentioned study, participants went on a one-week spiritual getaway which comprised silent contemplation, prayer, reflection, and daily meetings with a spiritual director, who provided guidance and insights. After the retreat, participants not only managed to improve dopamine and serotonin levels, but also showed marked improvements in their stress levels, physical health, and fatigue. They also reported improved feelings of self-transcendence, which, in many ways, is the aim of all spiritual retreats.

Is there a Secret Ingredient that Leads to a Higher Feel-Good Factor?

One of the most fascinating aspects of the study is that, as one researcher noted, “In some ways, our study raises more questions than it answers. Our team is curious about which aspects of the retreat caused the changes in the neurotransmitter systems and if different retreats would produce different results.”

The researchers were unable to pinpoint exactly which elements of spiritual treats were most effective because each participant valued the different components of the retreat differently. Thus, some people found that meditation or prayer were most powerful; others felt that simply being silent, had dramatic effects on their psyche; still others felt that being in nature significantly reduced their stress levels. Indeed, each of these components have been found to instil calm, fight stress and anxiety, and lower symptoms of depression. One possible reason why spiritual retreats are so effective is their ability to bring all these stress-busting practises elements together, within a beautiful, vacation-like setting.

Although the benefits of spiritual retreats remain a mystery, they bring many good things to our lives, by instilling calm, lifting mood and boosting vitality. Guidance, meditation, silence, and a sense of awe at being in the midst of stunning natural landscapes, are just a few of the many benefits of time away ‘with a purpose’.

Sally Benson is a professional freelance writer with many years experience across many different areas. She made the move to freelancing from a stressful corporate job and loves the work-life balance it offers her. When not at work, Sally enjoys reading, hiking, spending time with her family and travelling as much as possible.

This article is written exclusively for CrystalWind.ca.  © 2017 crystalwind.ca. All rights reserved.

© 2017 crystalwind.ca. All rights reserved.

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