New Study Examines the Effects of Prayer on Mental Health
What are your deepest beliefs regarding the nature of God? When you pray, do you talk to a loving, protective and easily accessible God? Or does God feel strangely distant and unreachable? Perhaps a disciplinarian? A new study says that your beliefs about the “character” of God determine the effects of prayer on your mental health.
Researchers from Baylor University found that people who pray to a loving and protective God are less likely to experience anxiety-related disorders — worry, fear, self-consciousness, social anxiety and obsessive compulsive behavior — compared to people who pray but don’t really expect to receive any comfort or protection from God.
Researchers looked at the data of 1,714 volunteers who participated in the most recent Baylor Religion Survey. They focused on general anxiety, social anxiety, obsession and compulsion. Their study, entitled “Prayer, Attachment to God, and Symptoms of Anxiety-Related Disorders among U.S. Adults,” is published in the journal Sociology of Religion.
For many people, God is a source of comfort and strength, says researcher Matt Bradshaw, Ph.D; and through prayer, they enter into an intimate relationship with Him and begin to feel a secure attachment. When this is the case, prayer offers emotional comfort, resulting in fewer symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Some people, however, have formed avoidant or insecure attachments to God, explains Bradshaw. This means that they do not necessarily believe that God is there for them. Prayer starts to feel like an unsuccessful attempt at having a close relationship with God. Feelings of rejection or “unanswered” prayers may lead to severe symptoms of anxiety-related disorders, he says.
The findings add to the growing body of research confirming a connection between a person’s perceived relationship with God and mental and physical health. In fact, a recent study by Oregon State University found that religion and spirituality result in two distinct but complementary health benefits. Religion (religious affiliation and service attendance) is linked to better health habits, including less smoking and alcohol consumption, while spirituality (prayer, meditation) helps regulate emotions.
Another recent study by Columbia University found that participating in regular meditation or other spiritual practice actually thickens parts of the brain’s cortex, and this could be the reason those activities tend to guard against depression — especially in those at risk for the disease.