Medication and psychotherapy can be effective treatments for depression and anxiety, but many people also turn to a higher power for help. Prayer can be very comforting during times of grief and pain.
While some research has suggested that religion may contribute to or worsen mental illnesses, more studies suggest that religion and spirituality appear to do more good than harm.
Religion and medicine once linked
At first glance, religion and medicine seem to be at odds, but this split is relatively recent. In the United States, the first mental hospitals were run by priests in local monasteries. Religion was thought to be a civilizing influence on patients, who were allowed to attend religious services as a reward for good behavior.
But in the late 19th century, mental health pioneers Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud began to link religion with hysteria and neuroses, and mental health treatment lost its religious component.
Today, psychiatrists are increasingly willing to incorporate religion into their practice upon the request of their patients. In fact, psychiatry as a discipline is starting to recognize the potential benefits of religion in their patients’ treatment.
In the last two decades or more, religion and spirituality have been increasingly examined in psychiatric research, according to a review published in the Journal of Religion & Health in 2013.
Of the 43 psychology and neurology studies included in this review, 31 linked religious or spiritual involvement with less mental disorder, eight found mixed results, and two reported more mental disorder.
Religion and depression
In other research, a study published in the journal Gerontologist in 2016 examined data involving more than 7,000 depressed and non-depressed older adults.
The researchers found that religiosity both protected against and helped individuals recover from depression. Those who frequently prayed or attended religious services had less risk for depression over a two-year period.
Earlier, a 2009 review article from Duke University, published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, examined research on the relationships between religion and depression, suicide, anxiety, psychotic disorders, and substance abuse.
Out of 724 published studies, more than half found that religious beliefs had a statistically significant positive impact on mental health. Among 93 observational studies, two-thirds found that more-religious people had significantly lower rates of depression or fewer depressive symptoms.
And among eight randomized clinical trials, people who participated in religious-based psychological interventions had faster symptom improvement than those in secular-based therapy or a control group.
Help for heart failure, COPD
Religious beliefs may be especially helpful for people with medical conditions who suffer from depression. The review article highlights a study of 1,000 people with depression who also had congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Those who were the most religious recovered from their depression 50 percent faster than other patients.
A study of 132 moderately to severely depressed adults who had at least one chronic illness found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) incorporating a person’s religious beliefs can relieve depression as effectively as conventional CBT. The study, published in 2015 in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, compared CBT to religiously integrated CBT over 12 weeks.
Religiously integrated CBT was led by therapists who had experience incorporating religious beliefs into CBT. It followed the same principles and style as conventional CBT, but made use of the client’s personal religious beliefs to identify and replace unhelpful thoughts and behaviors.
For example, if a person mentioned a verse of scripture that was relevant to their treatment, the therapist encouraged the patient to memorize the passage and to regularly meditate on it.
CBT and religiously integrated CBT worked equally well. Almost half of the people in each group went into remission. Religiously integrated CBT was slightly more effective in people who identified themselves as being more religious.
Caregivers may also benefit from having spiritual beliefs. One study found that religious caregivers of recently deceased cancer patients were significantly less likely to develop major depression 13 months later. Similar results were found in other studies for caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Religion and anxiety
For many people, turning to religion and prayer during stressful times seems natural and even somewhat universal. The expression “there are no atheists in foxholes” is well known.
According to the Duke review article, those coping mechanisms can be helpful in reducing anxiety. Out of seven randomized clinical trials, six found that religious people who received religious interventions for generalized anxiety disorder reduced their anxiety more quickly than religious people who received secular or standard treatment.
The review also highlighted one clinical trial in which 56 people with panic disorder were treated with group CBT. Participants who said religion was very important to them had significantly better symptom improvement and lower perceived stress 12 months later.
However, religious beliefs that focus on guilt and sin can actually increase anxiety. In a study of 100 women with gynecological cancer, those who said they felt that God was punishing them, had deserted them, or was unable to make a difference, had significantly higher anxiety than those who did not.
Why prayer may help
As with many alternative therapies, the ways in which spirituality may help—or hinder—recovery from depression and anxiety aren’t fully understood. Some of the benefit may be social. For example, people who attend religious services regularly and are part of a community may receive valuable support.
Attendance at religious services is also associated with other healthy behaviors such as seeking out preventive healthcare, engaging in physical activity, and avoiding risky behaviors—all of which may improve mental health.
Learn more about tools to combat depression, including online therapy and mood apps.