Sometimes it’s necessary to unplug from the matrix of work and familial responsibilities and to plug into the matrix of the universe. Spiritual retreats offer a safe haven to disconnect, relax, and reconnect with your inner self, God, or source energy, according to your particular spiritual practice. Studies have shown that spiritual retreats help lower anxiety and stress, and improve psychological well-being overall. Still, the neurophysiological effects of these retreats haven’t been documented…until now. Researchers from Thomas Jefferson University found that spiritual retreats may increase levels of feel-good hormones in your brain.
The Happiest Hormones of All
Dopamine and serotonin are naturally occurring “happy” chemicals that greatly influence your mood and mental health.
Dopamine helps regulate movement, your emotional responses, and your sensations of pleasure and pain. It impacts mood, behavior, sleep, and cognition, and helps drive creativity and decision-making. Once we hit age 20, however, levels of dopamine taper off at about 10% every decade. Low dopamine levels are associated with conditions such as ADHD, Parkinson’s, and schizophrenia.
As a key component of the central nervous system, serotonin is the ultimate mood and emotion regulator. It plays a key role in balancing the sleep cycle, body temperature, and appetite, and lends a helping hand with bowel function and the formation of blood clots. Low serotonin levels are associated with social anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia, bulimia, bipolar disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder.
The latest study showed that a 7-day spiritual retreat may increase levels of these hormones by changing the physiology of the dopamine and serotonin systems of the brain.
How Spiritual Retreats Increase Happy Hormones
Fourteen Christians between the ages of 24 and 76 participated in a 7-day Ignatian spiritual retreat. The retreat focused on practices developed by St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Attendees engaged in a daily morning mass, followed by silent contemplation, prayer, and reflection under the guidance of a spiritual director.
To measure the effects of the retreat on the brain, researchers took scans of participants’ brains before and after the study using DaTscan single photo emission computed tomography (SPECT). Attendees also completed multiple questionnaires assessing their physical and psychological well-being before and after the retreat.
The scans revealed reductions in dopamine transporter binding between 5-8%. Serotonin transporter binding decreased by 6.5%. Researchers note that these reductions help increase the production of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.
Co-author Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of research in the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University, explains: “Since serotonin and dopamine are part of the reward and emotional systems of the brain, it helps us understand why these practices result in powerful, positive emotional experiences.”
The questionnaire answers revealed that participants experienced improvements in health, tension, and fatigue and reported elevated feelings of self-transcendence, defined by Oxford Dictionary as: the overcoming of the limits of the individual self and its desires in spiritual contemplation and realization.
Give Yourself a Break
Striking an appropriate work-life balance is an art. Many of us experience duty overload, and resist taking a week or even a weekend to reflect and connect with our faith, or to simply recharge with a yoga or meditation retreat. Remember, your duty to yourself is perhaps your greatest responsibility of all. Taking time for self-care and for spiritual connection will help you come back to the real world stronger, more vital, and more engaged and productive than ever. There is no shortage of spiritual retreats to choose from. Pick your pleasure!