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Religiosity, Mysticism, and Health in Abused and Nonabused Women

by M. Lindsay Childress-Beatty
Teachers College, Columbia University

The primary aim of this study was to investigate whether mystical (primary religious) experiences enhance an awareness of grace, and whether this awareness ameliorates long-term psychological and physiological effects of abuse among women. It was proposed that feelings of self-blame, guilt, and sinfulness associated with abuse might be ameliorated through an awareness of grace, which may be deepened through mystical experience. In addition, it was hypothesized that mystical experience, awareness of grace, public and private religious observation, personal devotion (intrinsic religiosity), and continuation of childhood religion would be associated with decreased levels of physical and psychological symptoms, and institutional conservatism would be associated with increased levels, among both nonabused women and abuse survivors. Preexisting data on the lifetime sexual and physical abuse history and physical and psychological symptoms of women attending gynecological appointments through the VA Maryland Health Care System were combined with data on multiple dimensions of spirituality collected specifically for the study via a mailed questionnaire. Participants included 102 female veterans or dependents, 56% of whom were African American. Potential confounds of age, education, race, and social support were considered. Mystical experience was associated with decreased pregnancy problems and women's health problems in nonabused women but the association disappeared in abuse survivors. Contrary to the hypotheses, several of the religion measures including mysticism and awareness of grace were significantly associated with instances of increased reports of physical and psychological symptoms among abuse survivors. In nonabused women, institutional conservatism was associated with increased reports of depression. Sexual and/or physical abuse survivors reported higher levels on all of the religiosity measures than women who did not report abuse. Compared to nonabused women, significantly more abuse survivors also reported most of the physical and psychological symptoms. African and European Americans did not differ as to reports of lifetime history of abuse. African Americans reported higher levels of spirituality, including significantly higher personal devotion, awareness of grace, and mystical experience. This study provides implications for clinical understanding of the relationship between dimensions of spirituality and physical and psychological symptoms.

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