Difficult challenges in life such as chronic or terminal illness, palliative care and facing our own mortality can lead to obvious internal questioning of spirituality. What is spirituality?
Spirituality can be defined as finding meaning, purpose and transcendence in relationship with the significant or sacred. People find it in multiple ways. Sometimes it is formally in religion and religious community; but often it is through informal ways – with deep connection to loved ones, nature or music.
In doctor training, new doctors are taught to shed their personal beliefs as they put on their white coats. Spirituality appears as conflicting with the science of medicine. Over time, the way people have been cared for in Western Medicine has been broken up, with physical health becoming a focus and mental health lying in its own domain. Emotional health gets overlooked, and spiritual health is almost never discussed unless religious beliefs impact directly on clinical decisions, such as the refusal of blood product transfusions for those of the Jehovah Witness faith. Physicians can end up treating patients like an uninteresting appendage to an interesting disease. Clinical care such as cancer treatment can be dehumanising, where the focus lies on the disease rather than the patient. Tending to the soul, concerns about who patients are and how disease is going to affect holistic wellbeing is lost.
And it is not just the clinicians who have retreated from spirituality in their practice. Affiliation with formal religion continues to decline in the greater community, especially amongst young people, as shown by Australia’s census results. Spiritual practices and rituals are not held in importance in our busy modern society. Our culture can leave religious and spiritual beliefs unexplored, poorly understood or completely ignored. Spiritual experiences can even be dismissed as manifestations of psychopathology.
Is Spirituality Really Important?
This is a real shame, because there is much evidence that spirituality is beneficial in dealing with trauma, loss, grief, in building coping and resilience, and in readiness to face existential questions. It enables the discovery of the sense of self; of finding hope, connection, comfort, solace and acceptance; of expressing love, forgiveness and contentment; as well as fostering community and social support. Spiritual practice decreases levels of norepinephrine and cortisol, reducing the stress response; impacting on the body’s physiology and its ability to heal.
Without giving myself a particular label such as ‘chaplain’, I am an advocate for spiritual practice. I particularly like to work with those who do not have religious affiliation; not because I don’t want to work with those that do, but because I want to prioritise working with those who don’t already have spiritual avenues they wish to explore, and provide the support to discover them. I open people up to the importance of spirituality if formal religion is not their current choice.
People are often curious about my background because it doesn’t seem to make sense. I am a Medical Scientist, yet I am also a complementary health therapist and belly dance teacher who does guidance readings with oracle cards in a crystal shop. I strangely bestride the worlds of science and woo-woo, and I must admit, that has its challenges. But I keep my mind and my heart open to all possibilities, valuing Western Medicine and scientific method while also noting its limitations, particularly in this topic for discussion.
Thankfully, I am not on my own in this opinion. A long time ago as a university graduate, I worked under the guidance of Dr David Joske at Sir Charles Gardner Hospital. I have since watched his work progress from simply treating cancer patients at the hospital to building Solaris Cancer Care to support patients’ needs other than the treatment of their physical disease. I learn from my overseas peers, such as Madeleine Kerkhof (the founder of AromaCare) and Jonathon Benavides (teacher of the HEARTS process and other holistic health practices), both distinguished Aromatherapists from Europe. I see the differences in the approach to healthcare in their countries to that of our own, as well as the growing development of Integrative Health practices in the US. I envy that there are complementary therapists on staff in their hospitals, that their contribution is valued in the healthcare system. This is unlike the current approach in the Australian health system, where such therapies are largely performed by volunteers and the service is considered ‘a nice thing to do’ rather than being a respected part of the clinical care.
I have taken what I have learned from these esteemed Aromatherapists and other resources to develop my own approach to supporting those with chronic illness, the elderly and for palliative care.
For the Love of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy
I love essential oils! They got me through my own journey with grief and loss after a kind friend gifted me a bottle of a grief blend at my youngest daughter’s funeral. That blend brought me comfort and relief, and I still carry it with me always. My Medical Scientist mind got curious as to how essential oils were ‘working’ on me, so I started to do some research. That led to study and qualification as an Aromatherapist, and now I am honoured to share the power of essential oils with others. There are so many published research articles on the topic, that I simply can’t keep up. Aromatherapy is moving out of the shadow of the woo-woo and into the scientific spotlight. Ruth Barcan states that ‘Aromatherapy tenuously straddles its need to assert its legitimacy in the quest for scientific validation and a more radically inclusive holism.’ I feel I am the personification of this statement!
Barcan also shares that ‘Aromatherapy manages to recombine the separated realms of sensuality, spirituality and medicine and revive religious meanings and uses of scent,’ which shows the real value of aromatherapy for spiritual practice. Susanne Fischer-Rizzi writes that ‘essential oils have the ability to reconnect us with our spirituality because they have the ability to touch our hearts and open the door to our souls. Furthermore, essential oils give us the impetus for meaning in our life.’
Sacred spaces are created by engaging all of the senses, and the experiences I create embody this. I incorporate the use of essential oils, therapeutic touch, and gentle sounds and lights to provide a spiritual and relaxing sensory moment. When the client has the cognitive ability, together we create an essential oil blend that they enjoy the scent of, and which evokes calm to the emotions and the physical body. Should the client be unable to work with me in this way, I can engage the carers and loved ones on their behalf, or simply create my own intuitive blend. Scientific research demonstrates that by using the blend during the relaxation session, the mind creates a positive association between the aroma and the physical and emotional sensations also experienced.
The blend can then be used whenever the client needs some extra support, and the aroma encourages composure and tranquillity. I can also train carers and loved ones in how to safely use the essential oil blend in a diffuser and to offer light massage, to provide an opportunity for connection, and as a tool to feel that they have something useful to offer for support. It is an empowering process for both clients and their carers or family.
To learn more about my Aromatic Care Package and other therapeutic services, visit Titch Haven’s Therapy page.
Barcan, R. (2014). Aromatherapy and the Mixed Blessing of Feminization. The Senses and Society,9:1,33-54.
Cornah, D. (2006). The Impact on Spirituality on Mental Health – A Review of the Literature. Mental Health Foundation UK.
Fischer-Rizzi S. (1990). Complete Aromatherapy Handbook: Essential Oils for Radiant Health. Sterling Publishing.
Goto.A. (2022) Spirituality and Medicine: A Surprising Pairing. MedScape.
KevinMD.com. (2022). We have overwhelmingly lost touch with the human aspect of medicine.
VanderWeele, T.J., Balboni, M.J., Balboni, T.A. (2018). The Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality at Harvard: From Research to Education. Why Religion and Spirituality Matter for Public Health. Religion, Spirituality and Health: A Social Scientific Approach, vol 2. Springer.