Here I want to use the term in a different way. I want to use it to refer to how our souls are tied to our spirits and bodies. We are very interconnected. A problem or joy in one area of our beings affects the rest of us.
Before we get too far, though, how about a definition? Our souls encompass our hearts (or emotions), intellects (or minds) and wills, and are fully connected to our bodies and spirits. Emotions, of course, are all the ways we feel something. Our intellects are our thinking selves. And our wills are both the subconscious and the conscious ability to make choices.
Our wills give us the ability to choose to feel emotion or to shut it away. To choose one intellectual pursuit (such as a career choice) over another. It is an important part of what makes us human.
These three things are wrapped tightly together to make up our souls. But our souls are also wrapped tightly together with our bodies and spirits.
How our souls are tied to our spirits is a mystery; it can’t be measured, but one possibility is through our wills. We choose to love, or live in our meaning and purpose, or not. The extent to which we make these choices is the extent to which we fully live.
The tie between body and soul is clearer, and to some extent measurable. In fact, our bodies are so connected to our emotions that Candace Pert, an American neuroscientist and pharmacologist said, “Your body is your subconscious mind.”
What she meant by that is physical symptoms can reflect emotional conflict. “I’ve come to believe that virtually all illness, if not psychosomatic in foundation, has a definite psychosomatic component,” she wrote. The “molecules of emotion,” she argued, “run every system in our body,” creating a “bodymind’s intelligence” that is “wise enough to seek wellness” without a great deal of high-tech medical intervention.1
As Pert illustrated throughout her career, our bodies can affect our emotions, and our emotions can affect our bodies. For example, our souls are fully connected to our bodies through the endocrine, nervous and immune systems, which means a small problem in our bodies can severely affect emotions. The reverse is true, as well.
If the thyroid isn’t functioning properly, as in the case of hypothyroidism, it can lead to depression, sometimes severe. Conversely, emotions we experience can alter our physical bodies. For example, a study that evaluated the role of stress management in fighting cancer found that those who had the greatest anxiety connected to their medical condition had the lowest levels of white blood cells (which is good to see in cancer patients).
Put another way, physical or emotional stress, including abuse or trauma, not only breaks our souls, but takes a toll on our bodies. Researchers, like Pert, have found we store this type of trauma in cells all over our bodies.
Clearly, we are whole beings, made of three parts. Break down one part and our whole being suffers. But “heal” one part, and we benefit all over.
Supporting the whole
Research indicates there is a lot we can do to support our bodies, souls and spirits and bring our whole being into greater health. These things include: rest, relax, pray or meditate, exercise, spend time in nature, enjoy music and connect with other people. Let’s look at each of these.
Rest and relaxation
Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, M.D., who identified the “relaxation response,” demonstrated how relaxation techniques can lower heart rates and breathing rates, and decrease muscle tension. We can even measure the positive changes in our brains from these relaxation techniques.
Rest and relaxation can take many forms. And we all know it’s good for us. So why, when someone tells us to relax, do we sometimes say things like, “I don’t have time to relax!” If that’s your response, exploring its roots is a great place to start to taking better care of yourself.
Meditation and prayer
Research has shown that meditation and prayer is not only relaxing, but can be healing. For example, a study reported in Social Science and Medicine found that people with cancer or cardiovascular disease who attended a worship service had healthier lives more often than those who didn’t.
Dean Ornish, M.D., and his colleagues studied the integration of mind-body techniques such as yoga, meditation, stress management and group support. They found that “comprehensive lifestyle changes may ‘turn on’ the beneficial parts of the genome and ‘turn off’ the more harmful parts.”
This means mind-body work can straighten out our genes. Which means stress was able to get them off kilter in the first place.
A study in the 2011 International Journal of Epidemiology noted that “being physically active reduces the risk of all-cause mortality. The largest benefit was found from moving from no activity to low levels of activity, but even at high levels of activity benefits accrue from additional activity.”2
And exercise can help people overcome depression as well as medication can, at least in some populations. In one interventional study, researchers randomized men and women with major depression who were over 50, to either do an aerobic exercise program for four months or take Zoloft, an antidepressant drug.
Within four months, both the exercise-only group and the drug group normalized on the depression measurement scale. The researchers concluded that an exercise training program could be an alternative to antidepressant medication.3
Research also has shown that natural settings improve attention and reduce stress for victims of stroke, as well as for people who have suffered PTSD and other anxiety disorders. Even short periods of time in nature can reduce symptoms of depression.4
Other research has shown that being in nature, or even just looking at pictures of nature scenes, can reduce anger, fear and stress, and increase pleasant feelings. Research done in hospitals, offices and schools found that even one small plant in a room can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety.5
Music is another great, inexpensive stress buster. Dr. Wendy Magee, an International Fellow in Music Therapy at the Institute of Neuropalliative Rehabilitation in London, described music as a “mega-vitamin for the brain.”
It is effective in treating numerous disorders, including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and stroke.
Researchers in Finland, demonstrated listening to music several hours a day helped stroke victims with their rehabilitation. Another study described how stroke patients who learned to play the piano or drums made faster progress in their recovery than those treated only with traditional therapy.6
And new research corroborates anecdotal evidence that singing one’s heart out in a group makes people happier by reducing symptoms of anxiety.7
Another great source of soul and spirit well-being is healthy connection with other people, whether or not we’re singing with them. Such connections give us pleasure and influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as a good diet.
Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems and live longer. For example, married people are less likely to have a heart attack, according to the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.8
Other research demonstrated that long-term relationships mean better mental health for women and better physical health for men. On the physical side, married people have a three times higher survival rate post-heart surgery, compared with single people.
Conversely, those who lack meaningful social ties are more likely to be depressed and suffer later-life cognitive decline, as well as increased mortality. One study, which looked at data from more than 300,000 people, found that a lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50 percent. That effect is roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and it’s worse than being obese or physically inactive.9
But remember that little part of our souls called our wills? Whether we move into healing in any part of our lives is a choice. This is not to blame sickness on the person who is suffering. Sometimes we can’t avoid illness, and, no matter how much we desire it, we cannot be healed. However, we do hold a large choice in the matter. Our lives often can be more whole even within affliction.
For example, researchers believe our hearts are responsible for the production of oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the love hormone. Oxytocin plays an important role in emotional and social development. For example, when a mother feeds and tends her child, oxytocin is released.
If a mother chooses to not tend to her child well, her choice has an impact not only on the child but on her own well being. An article on The Hearty Soul sums it up:
“Oxytocin levels in both mothers and fathers of 4-6-month-old children were correlated with the child’s level of social engagement and bonding with their parents, and higher oxytocin levels in mothers are associated with increased mother-infant bonding. This means that bonding with one’s child, for example, through hugging, can increase oxytocin in the body, which not only establishes a healthier relationship between the parent and child, but may also reduce stress and social deficits as the child grows up.”10, 11
Looking at it another way, consider the example of someone who suffered a stroke. This kind of devastating illness often leads to both physical and emotional impairment, sometimes severe. Stroke victims can lose the ability to speak and walk, and often suffer from depression. We can assume there is also spiritual impairment.
The person did not choose to suffer a stroke and may not fully recover. But the stroke victim can choose to get better in many ways, or not. The person can choose to give up, or the person can choose to fight through the physical therapy, to seek ways to get through the depression and to look at the “bright” side of life.
In fact, in an article published by the American Stroke Association on its website, survivors of stroke “whose depression lifted recovered more mental functioning—memory, language and hand-eye coordination—than survivors whose depression did not improve.”12
Our souls are inextricably linked to the rest of our beings, and how we think and feel and what we choose makes a difference in our emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical wellbeing.
Regardless of the problems we face, whether spiritual, physical or soul-related, we must recognize the importance of our soul ties and start our healing paths with a choice.
What suffering are you facing today, and how can you strengthen your soul ties? Please leave a comment.
- The New York Times.
- Int J Epidemiol. 2011 Feb;40(1):121-38. Epub 2010 Jul 14.
- Arch Intern Med. 1999 Oct 25;159(19):2349-56. Effects of exercise training on older patients with major depression. Blumenthal JA1, Babyak MA, Moore KA, Craighead WE, Herman S, Khatri P, Waugh R, Napolitano MA, Forman LM, Appelbaum M, Doraiswamy PM, Krishnan KR.
- Altern Ther Health Med. 2005 Jul-Aug;11(4):54-8. Dementia wander garden aids post cerebrovascular stroke restorative therapy: a case study. Detweiler MB1, Warf C.
- Psychology Today.
- Science Daily.
- Sempre. Psychological and physiological effects of singing in a choir. Ahmet Muhip Sanal, Selahattin Gorsev. Volume: 42 issue: 3, page(s): 420-429. Article first published online: April 8, 2013; Issue published: May 1, 2014.
- Medical Net.
- Harvard Health.
- Dev Sci. Feldman R, Gordon I, Zagoory-Sharon O. Maternal and paternal plasma, salivary, and urinary oxytocin and parent-infant synchrony: considering stress and affiliation components of human bonding. Dev Sci [Internet]. 2011 Jul [cited 2017 Jan 3];14(4):752–61.
- Numan M, Young LJ. Neural mechanisms of mother–infant bonding and pair bonding: Similarities, differences, and broader implications. Horm Behav. 2016;77:98–112.
- Stroke Association.