How Religion and Spirituality Improve Mental Health
While completing my clinical research project for my doctorate in psychology, I was surprised to discover the vast amount of research reporting the mental health benefits that people of faith who practice positive forms of religion and spirituality (R/S) experience as compared to those who don’t. I thought I would share some of my findings to encourage those people encountering the trials of life.
For the purpose of this article, religion is typically defined as an association with or belonging to a church and its set of formalized beliefs. In contrast, spirituality is thought to be a private, personal experience or a sense of connection with God, which can include spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation.
When people are in psychological distress, they tend to turn to their faith to help them cope. Those who do so when dealing with life struggles often experience an improvement in how they feel. Some benefits that people of faith report include improved overall mood, reduced anxiety and depression, higher levels of happiness, and a stronger ability to adjust to stress.
What are some positive religious and spiritual coping strategies that have been shown to improve mental health in times of stress?
- Believing that God is good, loving, cares for us and is in control
- Experiencing the benefits of prayer and a sense of spiritual connection with God
- Reading the Bible for healing and inner peace
- Turning to the body of Christ, including clergy and church support groups
- Forgiving others
- Surrendering one’s will to God in trusting Him with your life
- Redefining or reframing the stressor using a positive lens (e.g., hoping God may use the stressor for good or believing that it is somehow beneficial)
The following are some types of sufferers and how they have significantly benefited from religious and spiritual practices:
Sufferers of child abuse and sexual violence who used positive religious and spiritual practices reported improved levels of depression, anxiety, and overall mood. They also reported greater feelings of positive personal growth, self-acceptance, hope, and resolution compared to survivors with no faith practices.
Veterans suffering from war-related trauma reported that memorizing prayers, having conversations with God, lifting up petitions to God, and meditating on God helped them to cope with the psychological aftermath of war, thus building a buffer against depression and suicide.
Persons with chronic rheumatoid arthritis and daily pain reported improvements in overall mood and outlook as well as a greater sense of intimacy with God. They also felt that their religious and spiritual practices gave them the ability to cope with chronic pain and develop an increased spiritual awareness or improved connection with God.
Caregivers of people with severe chronic health issues reported positive outcomes such as feelings of closeness and harmony with God, along with lower levels of depression.
In summary, as compared to those people who don’t engage in religious and spiritual practices, those who do so feel closer to God, tend to be more equipped to cope with stress, and report a variety of improvements such as feeling happier, experiencing improved self-esteem, having hope, or being certain of their purpose in life. Some also feel they are more resilient for having gone through the trials of life, which have resulted in greater life satisfaction, and spiritual growth.
- In times of distress consider practicing diligence with the disciplines of prayer and Bible study which can be helpful in easing depression, anxiety and other positive mental health outcomes
- Ensuring regular attendance at healthy churches and Bible studies groups, even when overwhelmed and busy, can provide a buffer to stress
- Practicing religious and spiritual disciplines can also provide a sense of agency by being proactive when life seems out of control
- Explore what churches have to offer in person or online (i.e., support groups, pastoral counselling, 12-step groups, bereavement groups, couples counseling) which can provide various resources and para church resources or ministries to improve spiritual and emotional health and can help curtail advancing mental health disorders.
However, we should note that these disciplines do not take away pain or distress. Rather, these disciplines build our ability to persevere through the trial and can give us purpose and meaning. They can also build our faith, help us develop closer intimacy with God, or teach us to comfort others with the comfort we have received (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). Remember, despite how we may feel at times, we have a God who will never leave us nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6). Instead, He will strengthen and help us (Isaiah 41:10).
Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or loss can often take hold of a person’s life. In times of crisis, it may also be a good idea to seek the aid of pastoral counsel or a therapist to help walk alongside you.
If you’re in a crisis during hours when our support staff is not available, then you can contact SAMHSA’s Suicide & Crisis Lifeline 24/7 at 800-662-HELP.
When you need additional support, call our Meier Clinics national number, 1-888-7CLINIC and someone can help you who understands the benefits of faith.