Spirituality among College Freshmen: Relationships to Self-Esteem, Body Image, and Stress

By Hayman, Jessie Wetherbe; Kurpius, Sharon Robinson et al. | Counseling and Values, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Spirituality among College Freshmen: Relationships to Self-Esteem, Body Image, and Stress


Hayman, Jessie Wetherbe, Kurpius, Sharon Robinson, Befort, Christy, Nicpon, Megan Foley, Hull-Blanks, Elva, Sollenberger, Sonja, Huser, Laura, Counseling and Values


The authors investigated the relationships between spirituality, body image, self-esteem, and stress in 204 college freshmen who identified themselves as being highly spiritual. A positive relationship was found between spirituality and self-esteem. Although self-esteem was found to be negatively related to stress, spirituality served as a buffer in this relationship. When gender of participants was examined, men and women did not differ in spirituality. Greater spirituality was related to lower body surveillance, an aspect of body image, for men, but it was not related to body image for women. Overall, however, women experienced greater body image dissatisfaction than did men.

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Historically, most Americans have reported a belief in a God or a universal spirit (Gallup, 1995). In spite of this, how these beliefs affect the everyday lives of Americans has not been extensively studied (Thoreson, 1998). As Thoreson noted, spirituality can be a source of strength for the many challenges (e.g., career insecurity, health complications, and psychosocial concerns) that almost everyone faces, regardless of age or life situation. The present study examined whether spirituality played a role in self-perceptions and experienced stress among college freshmen.

For many students, the transition to college is a highly stressful process (Hudd et al., 2000). Experiencing stress during a time of transition, as well as during other major life events, can lead to physical and psychological distress (Schafer, 1996) and to decreased self-esteem (Abel, 1996; Abouserie, 1994; Brown & Dutton, 1995). For example, Schonfeld (2001) measured stress and self-esteem at various points throughout the school year for 184 first-year teachers. Episodic stress was related to lower self-esteem, and the number of stressful events experienced in the workplace was negatively related to self-esteem. More recently, a study by Wilburn and Smith (2005) revealed that low self-esteem and stress were significantly related to suicidal ideation in college students. How recently a student experienced a stressful event also proved to be a significant factor; students who had recently experienced a stressful event reported significantly lower self-esteem than did students who had experienced a stressful event a few months before the study. In a longitudinal study, Aspinwall and Taylor (1992) found that students with higher self-esteem were better adjusted to college than were students with lower self-esteem at a 2-year follow-up.

Little research has examined the relationship between stress and body image, a surprising gap because many young adults struggle with this issue (Cullari, Rohrer, & Bahm, 1998; Davison & McCabe, 2006; Felsten & Wilcox, 1992; Sher, Wood, & Gotham, 1996). Researchers have reported a positive relationship between body image and self-esteem (Harris, 1995; Noles, Cash, & Winstead, 1985; J. K. Thompson & Altabe, 1991). It should be noted, however, that there may be gender differences in body image satisfaction. For example, Furnham, Badmin, and Sneade (2002) found that female adolescents linked body image dissatisfaction with self; those who were more dissatisfied with their bodies had lower self-esteem. Similarly; Davison and McCabe found that body image was a significant factor when examining female adolescents' low self-esteem. The same was not true for male adolescents.

Given the relationships between body image and self-esteem and between self-esteem and stress, it is possible that a relationship may also exist between body image and stress. Furthermore, because body image and stress are both negatively related to self-esteem and other measures of well-being, such as college adjustment (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1992; Gloria & Robinson Kurpius, 200l), it is important to search for a construct that may intercede within these negative relationships. Indeed, not all college students experience difficulty with body image dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, or heightened stress. …

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