June 24, 2024

There is indeed research that’s looked extensively at the mental and emotional health effects of prayer, revealing a variety of positive outcomes.

For Anxiety and Depression

Offering up worshipful thanks, for example, may calm anxiety. The 2023 study in the Journal of Religious Health associated devotional prayer (the kind that praises God) and prayer expectancy (or belief that God answers prayer) to lower anxiety. But, prayers that asked God for forgiveness and support were correlated with higher anxiety. (A questionnaire assessed which type of prayer people practiced, while anxiety was measured using a self-reported scale rating feelings of worry, tension, and restlessness.)

The uplifting nature of prayer and religious experience may also help alleviate symptoms of depression, according to a review in Postgraduate Medicine that looked at 41 clinical studies. Per that work, frequent private prayer was linked with significant benefits for depression, optimism, coping, and other mental health conditions like anxiety.

People with major depressive disorder or chronic medical illness who report high levels of religiosity, which includes daily religious experiences (like prayer), generally become more optimistic than their peers, according to a study published in Depression and Anxiety.

For Connectedness

In addition to connecting with a higher power, prayer can create feelings of connectedness between the person praying and fellow believers. A review of 78 studies by Park and other researchers published in Cancer found that patients who reported a strong religious or spiritual life also maintained richer social connections.

For Heart Health

Multiple studies have tackled prayer’s impact on physical health, and heart health in particular. A report published in Health Psychology found that when researchers followed 191 people with congestive heart failure for five years, those who reported feeling spiritual peace — and who also made some healthy lifestyle changes — were significantly likely to live longer than their peers.

A study in the September 2022 Journal of the American Heart Association revealed that people who engaged in more religious activities or had spiritual perspectives were more likely to have better measures of overall heart health. Those who frequently practiced private prayer were 12 percent more likely to have ideal or intermediate diet scores and were 24 percent less likely to smoke.

It’s worth noting here that though research has linked prayer to these health benefits, the reason for the connection is still not clear.

For Lowering Stress

Spending quiet time communicating with the divine may lower stress by inducing the relaxation response. “That peace, that sense of meaning and connection that happens with prayer, is what is positive,” Park says. “Those kinds of things have physiological effects on the body, such as calming your cardiovascular system and reducing your stress.”

This nervous system “reboot” can have cascading benefits, both mental and physical. Prayer’s induction of the relaxation response has been linked to lower heart rates, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption, as well as reduced symptoms of arthritis, insomnia, depression, infertility, cancer, anxiety, and aging, according to the American Psychological Association.

According to Levin, the act of voicing the desires of our hearts to God (whether silently or out loud) is also therapeutic. “[Many] religions encourage vernacular prayer, or the kind of prayer where an individual pours his or her heart out to God. In my opinion, this is very healing all by itself,” he says. A personal connection with the divine can mimic the comforting experience of talking to a friend or loved one, he explains.


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