Psych Central

How Religion and Spirituality Can Help (or Harm) You

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Spirituality“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.” (Billy Sunday)

Is it better for your happiness and health to belong to an organized religion or to be “spiritual”? Does it matter?

Being religious refers to believing in a specific deity (or group of deities) and following the regulations of a particular religion. In addition, organized religion (as implied by its title) generally takes place in a relatively formal, organized context. In contrast, being spiritual may or may not involve belief in a particular god but does imply that the person is trying to follow a specific moral code, such as being loving and kind, and is seeking a meaning in life that’s bigger than him or herself.

In other words, a person can be both religious and spiritual. In contrast, someone can be religious but not spiritual, as in the case of adhering to religious dogma such as tithing 10% of one’s income but being consistently cruel or unjust. Or, an individual can be spiritual but not religious.

Unfortunately, some organized religions have become associated with hypocrisy and worse, due to a few (or more) individuals of high standing in such communities behaving in regrettable and hurtful ways. So have some spiritual pursuits found themselves under scrutiny, for that matter.

As a result, the very concept of religion or spirituality can turn people off, which is unfortunate. It isn’t necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Participation in organized religion and in a spiritual community can offer many benefits, including the following:

  • social contact and support
  • a chance to volunteer and feel useful
  • a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself
  • a sense of identity
  • a sense of connection with a loving, powerful, and wise Higher Power
  • the opportunity to learn universal moral principles
  • greater ability to forgive (McCullough & Worthington, 1999)
  • greater emotional and physical resilience after trauma (Ellison & Levin, 1998)

Everyone needs to find out for himself or herself what religious or spiritual path is the right fit. Even if another person’s faith sounds wonderful in many ways, it still may not ultimately be your personal path. For instance, let’s say that you believe in marriage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to wed just anyone.

It helps to actively participate in your spiritual community and also to practice (however imperfectly) the principles of your belief system. Depending on your faith, such principles can involve:

  • prayer
  • meditation
  • reading spiritual literature
  • attending Bible or other literature studies with fellows in your faith community
  • going to religious or spiritual services
  • volunteering to help in your community (building homes for Habitat for Humanity, visiting home-bound individuals, donating to food drives, etc.)

It is, however, to abuse religion or spirituality. Some signs of this include:

  • passively turning your problems over to God or your Higher Power without doing what’s within your power to do yourself
  • engaging in religious or spiritual rituals to the point of jeopardizing important and healthy relationships
  • berating yourself mercilessly for falling short of what you consider to be “God’s will” for you
  • joining a cult and completely submitting to its rules and regulations
  • being angry and intolerant toward those who do not share your belief system

At its best, both organized religion and spirituality will help you answer in the affirmative to the following questions:

  1. Are you becoming capable of compassion to others as well as to yourself?
  2. Do you strive to practice kindness, even “under fire”?
  3. Are you becoming more patient with apparent obstacles or delays, recognizing that such occurrences may turn out to be for the best? Or, even if there seems to be no conceivable way that the situation in question could be beneficial, can you accept this without resentment or fear?
  4. If you falter in any of the above, are you capable of compassion while also being accountable for your actions or attitude, knowing that nobody is perfect?


Ellison, C.G., & Levin, J.S. (1998). The religion-health connection: Evidence, theory, and future directions. Health Education and Behavior, 25: 700-20.

McCullough, M.E., & Worthington, E.L. (1999). Religion and the forgiving personality. Journal of Personality, 67: 1141-64.

Can You Love Someone Too Much?

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Heart LoveDo any of the following statements ring true for you?

  1. My feelings of self-worth are dependent on what you and other people think of me.
  2. I focus on solving your problems, protecting you from the consequences of your actions, or “fixing” you, to the point of neglecting my own needs. 
  3. My self-esteem is based on my ability to “fix” you.
  4. I abandon my personal values and interests and conform with your values and interests.
  5. I know how you feel and what you want, but I’m not clear on how I feel and what I want.
  6. My words and actions are chosen in attempts to avoid your anger or rejection.

If so, you may be struggling with codependency, defined as becoming so preoccupied with someone else that you cease to take adequate care of yourself. This is not love – this is looking to an outside source to grant you happiness and a sense of purpose, much in the way that alcoholics or chemically dependent people use substances to numb their feelings and escape life. Although codependents may appear to be kind, gentle, and giving, these qualities can mask a wish to manipulate and control others in order to feel better about themselves. So in a sense codependency is a form of addiction.

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Hints for Effective Stress Management

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Stressed-RelaxedGenerally when we talk about being “stressed”, we mean that we’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious. However, we all need a certain level of stimulation and challenge in order to feel fulfilled, and this crucial amount of stress is termed eustress.

Defined by the endocrinologist Hals Selye, eustress refers to “good stress”, or responding to a stressor as if it were a growth-enhancing opportunity, rather than as something to be feared, resisted, denied, or avoided. Of course, the chances of our viewing something as eustress have a lot to do with when and how the stressor occurs, as well as how much control we think we have over the situation and how welcome we view the stressor to be. 

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10 Ways to Increase Self-Esteem

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT


Healthy self-esteem is comprised of self-worth, self-confidence, and self-acceptance. It does not mean that we are proud, arrogant, or think that we’re inherently better than other people, but that we feel worthy of respect and as if we are of value. In this state, we’re able to let go of self-centeredness, because we aren’t preoccupied with how we are or aren’t measuring up. While we take appropriate action toward our goals, they don’t define who we are as people. Thus, our self-esteem remains independent of our achievements or what other people think of us, although we still strive to maximize our potential.

Some ways to bolster your self-esteem:

  1. Be realistic. Don’t compare yourself with others, but just focus on doing your best. Also, recognize that your best may vary from day to day, based on factors such as how much sleep you got the previous night, the types of food you’ve been eating, how much work you have on your plate, and your social interactions.

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Does Your Road to Recovery Have Heart?

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT


Look at every path closely and deliberately.

Try it as many times as you think necessary.

Then ask yourself, and yourself alone…

Does this path have a heart? If it does, the

path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use.

- Carlos Casteneda

When it comes to dealing with addiction, emotional problems, relationship problems, or having gotten off-course in life, recovery has two components: recovery from behaviors that no longer work and recovery of a healthy and fulfilling life. Focusing only on not doing something anymore or moving away from particular behaviors keeps us in a deprivation mentality.

After all, what we really want is happiness grounded in a sense of purpose and things to wake up to with joy and enthusiasm each morning, to keep us going when the road gets rocky (as it inevitably will, from time to time). The cup can always be at least half-full rather than half-empty — and at times the cup can even be overflowing!

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Enhancing Intimacy: The Art of Listening

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Woman Listening-Touching Arm Small“Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival – to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.” Steven Covey

Most of us agree that good communication is essential for healthy relationships. However, when we think of communication, we often focus what we want to say, rather than the quality of attention we can offer the other person. Stephen Covey, author of the best-seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, lists “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood” as Habit 5, and states that when we practice empathic listening, we are giving the other person “psychological air”, the priceless gift of being accepted, and help in clarifying what they’re really feeling, thinking, experiencing, and needing.

Some hints for effective listening:

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Creating Meaning In Your Life

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Path In Woods

“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” (Friedrich Nietzsche)

When we’re immersed in depression or anxiety, finding some semblance of happiness or purpose in life can feel almost impossible. Depression makes even the smallest task feel like a monumental effort, and anxiety tends to make us run from or avoid people and experiences.

Our self-confidence decreases, as we tend to forget that at one time we were functioning more effectively. Our shrinking back from life makes our world smaller, and we lose touch with those things that gave our existence meaning. Without meaning, we are more prone to chronic anxiety and depression – it’s a vicious cycle.

Even if we’re doing fairly well at the moment, we may still be haunted at times by the sense that we’re drifting somewhat aimlessly. So, how do we increase our sense of meaning and purpose?

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Fish Oil Consumption Protects Against Death of Brain Cells

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Gel CapsAccording to a study published in the January 22, 2014 on-line edition of the journal Neurology, the higher the level of fish oils in your blood, the larger your brain volume is likely to be, implying that such oils may slow down the loss of brain cells as you age.

The study team assessed the level of the marine omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA in the red blood cells of over 1,000 post-menopausal women. Eight years later, the women’s brain volumes were measured using MRI scans. The average age of the participants was 78 at the time of the brain scans.

Study subjects with omega-3 levels twice (7.5 percent) as high as those in the lowest range demonstrated a 0.7 percent higher brain volume. In addition, higher levels of omega-3 were associated with greater (2.7 percent) hippocampal volume. The hippocampus is the area of the brain first ravaged by the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. 

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What You May Not Know About Mindfulness

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

Lotus FlowersEverywhere we turn these days, there seems to be another article extolling the benefits of mindfulness, and with good reason. Adopting a regular mindfulness practice can help treat:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • substance abuse
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • eating disorders such as bulimia, compulsive overeating, and anorexia
  • emotional volatility
  • high blood pressure
  • chronic pain
  • insomnia
  • gastrointestinal difficulties

However, a number of misconceptions about mindfulness are also floating around, such as the following:

  • Mindfulness is simply chilling out. No. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course puts it, “Mindfulness is not relaxation spelled differently”. While mindfulness may eventually result in relaxation, along with some or all of the above listed advantages, mindfulness does this through a circuitous route. Mindfulness involves staying with our present experience, whether it is blissful or painful, without passing judgment. The MBSR course was initially developed to aid patients with chronic physical or mental health conditions, from back pain and fibromyalgia, to generalized anxiety. The title of Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living, states it well – mindfulness is engaging fully in whatever is going on at the current moment – being attentive and curious rather than trying to change one’s experience. Kabat-Zinn recognized this in his own life while pacing the floors of his home in the middle of the night with one of his newborn babies – mindfulness is waking up to the “full catastrophe” (a phrase originally uttered by Zorba the Greek).

    Continue reading… »

Martin Luther King Jr. on Dreams, Love, and Perseverance

By Rachel Fintzy, MA, MFT

MLK, a pastor, humanitarian, and leader in the 1960s American civil rights movement, famously employed a nonviolent approach in his battle for racial and economic justice. Fifty years after Dr. King’s untimely death at age 39 by the hand of an assassin, his significant impact on our country’s social, racial, and spiritual terrain lives on… and his words are as pertinent today as ever.

I Have A Dream 3

This principle could apply to people’s weight, height, gender, age, job, financial status, or other external features. Take stock of what’s on the inside, and never consider yourself (or others) incapable of being useful. Dr. King also stated, “Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Continue reading… »


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Recent Comments
  • Darlene Lancer, LMFT: Thanks for this checklist. I would also add that many codependents aren’t so cautious...
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