Coping With HIV Through Religion & Spirituality

Personal beliefs remain central to self-efficacy

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Receiving the news that you have HIV can be a very difficult time for some, with the emotional aspects of the disease bearing as much weight as the physical ones. In the end, HIV affects the whole body—physical, emotional and spiritual—and often forces an individual to examine who they are as a person and what they believe.

Religion and spirituality are central to many people's lives and, when faced with an HIV infection, can provide a newly infected person a means to cope or come to terms with his or her disease.

Religion vs. Spirituality

Religion and spirituality are sometimes used interchangeably but, in many cases, people will separate a spiritual belief from a belief that is prescribed by an "organized religion."

Some people like to define "spirituality" as a means to connect the past to the present, using the beliefs and moral ideals of their ancestors to guide one's personal own beliefs. This school of thought dictates that the actions of today are based on lessons learned from the past. In this way, spirituality tends to be unique to each individual.

By contrast, "religion" can be broadly defined as a connection to a higher power or entity. Religious institutions by and large worship a divine entity (or entities) in a defined, even regimented fashion. The concept of worship tends to be central to all religions, with variations in the way a person prays, meditates, or ruminates—whether in congregation or alone.

Seeking Guidance in the Face of HIV

People will often seek out religious or spiritual guidance after an HIV diagnosis if only to answer the plethora of "why's" that are often part of the inner dialogue. It can link them to deeper moral or ethical beliefs that provide them the answers medical science can't.

It can offer an individual the means to examine the universal questions about existence, including:

  • Why me? Why did I get infection?
  • What is my purpose in life? Is it different now that I have HIV?
  • What about the people around me? What will my disease tell me about my relationships?
  • Am I feeling guilt, shame, or suffering? If so, why? What can I do to resolve this?
  • Can my infection be a means to attain a higher enlightenment?
  • Do I have to give up things because of HIV? And, more importantly, can I?
  • What do I feel about life? About death?

The Role of Religion & Spirituality in HIV

Even among those who actively turn away from religion (often as a result of the stigma, prejudice, and discrimination associated with certain orders), the need for spiritual guidance can remain strong. Even under the construct of "self-help" or "new age" enlightenment, spiritual leaders can provide HIV-positive people with a heuristic approach to improve their overall sense of emotional well-being, the goals of which can include:

  • Developing a compassionate life scheme
  • Encouraging personal mindfulness and self-reflection
  • Gaining greater self-acceptance and inner peace
  • Promoting positive thinking
  • Normalizing HIV in one's life
  • Establishing HIV as a part of self rather than as self

Churches and spiritual organizations are uniquely positioned to provide these things. They are key to shaping social values and have the ability to influence public opinion. From a functional point of view, many have long directed charitable resources to HIV education, care, and treatment, while raising social awareness and community acceptance. Even the very act of praying for a person with HIV can provide that individual a sense of support that may be missing from his or her life. 

On the other hand, there are times when religious doctrine can create barriers to HIV prevention and care, whether it be supporting abstinence-only teaching, opposing family planning or abortions, or demonizing at-risk individuals (e.g. homosexuals, injecting drugs users, and sexually active women and youth).

Such stigmatizing beliefs can be particularly destructive to those raised within a certain religion, not only bolstering feelings of guilt and shame, but adding to the isolation a newly infected individual can experience.

How Medical Providers & Caregivers Can Help

It is important that medical providers and caregivers understand the importance of religion and spirituality in many people's live and to neither judge nor dismiss ideas that they may find irrelevant or in opposition to their own beliefs.

By actively engaging a person in a discussion about his or her personal beliefs, you encourage interaction on an emotional level and are more able to address feelings that can negatively impact a person's ability to self-manage their disease.

However, when religious or spiritual beliefs impede a person from seeking the care or treatment he or she may need, try not to attack that person's beliefs. It's more important that people understand the consequences of their actions and are able to form their own decisions based on fair and unbiased information from you. Engaging in a war of beliefs does little to accomplish that.

If a person's actions are truly harmful, consider bringing in his or her spiritual adviser to discuss the matter together as a group. Oftentimes, a person's religious beliefs are not so much based on doctrine as an interpretation of that doctrine, filtered through personal experience, bias, and fears. Working together with spiritual or religious advisers can sometimes help overcome such barriers.

Sources:

Cotton, S. "Changes in Religiousness and Spirituality Attributed to HIV/AIDS: Are There Sex and Race Differences?" Journal of General Internal Medicine. December 21, 2006; Suppl 5: 514-20.

Ridge, D. "Like a prayer: the role of spirituality and religion for people living with HIV in the UK." Sociological Health and Illness. April 2008; 30(3):413-428.

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