Since the first humans roamed the Earth, there has always been a quest for the meaning of life. Individuals have often turned to religion as an answer to all of life’s questions, such as what occurs when one dies, if there is a higher power or deity in existence, and for guidance on spiritual and physical healing. While it cannot be scientifically proven whether spiritual legends of healing (such as the miracles of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith) are accurate, it is undeniable that many religions, despite the uncertainty of which religion is “correct,” have brought their followers peace of mind and happiness. Therefore, it may not be surprising that most individuals residing in the United States, whether actively participating in organized religious activities or not, have expressed a belief in a higher power. Over the past 50 years, more than 90% of Americans have consistently expressed a belief in a god; more than 60% of which also pray on a daily basis (Miller). Furthermore, more than two-thirds report having membership to a church, mosque, or synagogue. Many individuals also report that participating in their religious practices has positively impacted their psychological, emotional, and physical health through receiving a sense of purpose in their life, being given hope in times of adversity, and aiding individuals in decision-making processes. Therefore, it can be argued that spirituality and religion are beneficial to one’s health; although it is not any specific religion’s doctrine that can bring healing, but it encourages believers to find purpose in their lives, to be optimistic in adversity, and to follow “signs” which directly impact their decisions. Additionally, while all followers who practice spiritual rituals benefit greatly from the psychological effects of the practices, it is only the most devout who are able to achieve true enlightenment.
Among many of the psychological disorders often helped through meditation and spirituality (not intended to replace medication), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms have been found to be reduced in African-American women through the practice of religion in a study conducted by Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis et al. According to the study, the African-American female demographic was chosen due to their increased risk of experiencing sexual assault. Furthermore, due to persisting sexual stigma and racism in American society, black women are the least likely to seek help from formal agencies, such as law enforcement and psychological counseling. Therefore, the researchers inferred that perhaps the women would be more likely seek help from psychological and philosophical experts when religious and spiritual coping techniques are employed. The study was then conducted for one year, experimenting on 252 sexual assault survivors located in the Chicago metropolitan area. After the first progress check on the victims’ symptoms, it was found that several women had not yet experienced a decrease in PTSD symptoms (Davis). However, at Time 2, it was found that social support and religious coping indeed helped survivors better cope with their symptoms, even if the symptoms were not entirely abolished. Therefore, while the individuals’ religious beliefs may not have caused their symptoms to cease altogether, they were still able to find new methods to cope with their trauma and have the courage to seek help from professionals as well.
Further studying the effects of spirituality’s effects on psychological health, Dr. Jeffrey Greeson et al. studies the effects of a technique known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (hereafter referred to as MBSR) on individuals struggling with clinical depression. MBSR is a meditation program not affiliated with any specific religion that is known to treat major depression symptoms. Prior to the study on the treatment’s effectiveness, there was little known about the participants’ personal spiritual backgrounds. Therefore, the study tested whether individual differences in religion and spiritual maturity affect MBSR’s efficacy (Greeson). Throughout the experimentation process, psychological professionals analyzed 322 adults for a total of eight weeks. In the full study sample, it was discovered that the severity of depressive symptoms significantly decreased across all of the subgroups, which include but are not limited to religion, spiritual growth, sex, and baseline symptom severity. The most significant factor in successful results was discovered to be a result of changes in spirituality and mindfulness; as individuals became more open to embracing new ideas and participating in retrospective activities (most commonly meditation), they became more devoted to engaging in MBSR activities, ultimately achieving optimal results and experiencing a significant decrease in depressive symptoms. Therefore, although the meditation training program is not affiliated with any particular faith, the act of meditation in itself, which is utilized in most contemporary religions (such as the spiritual practice of prayer, which is a significant activity in religions focusing on the presence of a deity, and involves a vast amount of retrospection), is potent enough to not only decrease symptoms of depression, but also to increase one’s mindfulness, overall attitude, and spiritual awareness.
In addition to the psychological impact of faith, studies have also discovered psychosomatic effects as well. Chittaranjan Andrade, Professor of Psychopharmacology for the National Institutes of Health, has further discussed the common belief of healing through prayer through illustrating randomized controlled trials on prayer and healing. Andrade conducted a study on three possible outcomes of prayer: the possibility of prayer improving a situation’s outcome, having no effect on the outcome, and the possibility of worsening outcomes. Although Andrade admits that it is difficult to truly observe the positive effects of spirituality from a scientific perspective, it is evident that stress management techniques utilized in prayer (which, as previously stated, is a form of meditation) are often correlated with improved mental and biological health. Such benefits include reduced ambulatory blood pressure, reduced heart rate, altered levels of melatonin and serotonin, improved immune responses, and enhanced self-esteem. This became evident when the three outcome studies were conducted. When studying improved outcomes, he requested individuals to participate in intercessory prayer on wound healing in a nonhuman species. When the 22 bush babies were divided into randomized prayer and control groups over a 4-week period, it was found that the bush babies who had been placed in a prayer group experienced a greater reduction in wound size compared to the control animals. This discovery is highly important, because due to the species being inhuman, the subjects likely did not experience a placebo effect. In the test of absence of prayer benefits, it was discovered that patients suffering with terminal cardiovascular defects did not benefit from similar intercessory prayer methods, and when studying worsened outcomes associated with prayer, it was discovered that individuals only showed signs of improvement when they were aware they were being prayed for. Therefore, he argues that it is not the prayer in itself that leads to recovery, but the improved mental state it creates in those participating.
In addition to physical benefits, religion can also impact decisiveness in healing. It is important to note Norman Yeung Bik Chung’s “A Faithful Taoist,” which describes the impact Taoism had on his late father (Chung). As his father’s health began to decline as the result of a dying battery in a pace maker inserted into his heart, he found himself faced with two options: undergo surgery to replace the battery and face a long and painful recovery process, or let nature run its course. His father had been considering the latter prior to visiting their local Taoist temple. However, he received a message at the altar which stated, “Go and he will be healed.” Believing it to be a sign from a deity, he received surgery and was able to extend his life for another fifteen years. Years after his death, the Chung explains that he still feels his father’s presence in ways that are difficult to dismiss as coincidence or a work of his own imagination. He then concludes that even if they were written by one of the volunteers at the temple, those few words written on the message his father received at the altar strengthened his father’s will to live, stating, “I will always be grateful to those who gave him the hope none of us in our family could offer.” In the end, he argues that it is not the validity of religion that matters, but instead it is how it affects human life. Chung’s father’s complete trust in the religion led to experiencing fifteen more years of life, assisting him in making the decision that was ultimately the best for his family and personal health.
Therefore, while there are many variables that are difficult to test scientifically due to the various religions and spiritual beliefs present in the world, one can conclude that the meditative practices are helpful in improving one’s mental state, which has a significant effect on other parts of the physical body as well.
Andrade, Chittaranjan, and Rajiv Radhakrishnan. “Prayer and Healing: A Medical and Scientific Perspective on Randomized Controlled Trials.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry 51.4 (2009): 247–253. PMC. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.
Chung, Norman. “A Faithful Taoist.” N.d.
Greeson Jeffrey M., Smoski Moria J., Suarez Edward C., Brantley Jeffrey G., Ekblad Andrew G., Lynch Thomas R., and Wolever Ruth Quillian. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. March 2015, 21(3): 166-174. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0285.
Miller, W. R., & Thoresen, C. E. (2003). Spirituality, religion, and health: An emerging research field. American Psychologist, 58(1), 24-35. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.58.1.24