The Mental Health Benefits of Prayer

Part Three in the Mindfulness, Prayer, and Meditation Series

When the word prayer comes to mind one might conjure images of organized religious services. However, prayer is a much richer and more meaningful experience than only that experienced through contact with a church, synagogue, r mosque, or other places of worship. Indeed, there are many mental and physical health benefits to speaking to and cajoling a higher power.

In today’s piece, we shall examine together prayer and how it can benefit those who live with the aftereffect of severe trauma; complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Differences Between Prayer and Meditation

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While prayer and meditation share some common traits, they are two different forms of action.

For one, prayer is active while meditation is passive.

Prayer relies on a meditative mood, but it is also a goal-directed activity. During prayer, the person speaks to a deity in some fashion giving praise or offering thanks, seeking forgiveness, and often seeking assistance. The deity the person prays to is considered by the person praying to be in a relationship with them.

Meditation does not occur to reach an end as prayer does. Instead, meditation is a goalless absorption in the here and now. Meditation offers the ability to calm oneself from the inside out and instead of dwelling on the stresses of life to focus rather on one’s own consciousness of the world around them.

The Similarities Between Prayer and Meditation

While those who pray may believe that prayer and meditation have little in common it is true that there are many similarities between the two.

For instance, in the Catholic tradition of repeating “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy” or the evangelicals of the U.S. repeating the name of Jesus repetitively are forms of meditation allowing one to enter into praise and contemplation. The repetition of phrases or words is a customary practice among the religious practices of many other parts of the world.

Both prayer and meditation embrace spirituality, silence, and solitude and are performed in a quiet place that offers an opportunity to connect with a higher being, oneself, or nature.

Both prayer and meditation become a safe haven from stresses and distractions that happen in the lives of practitioners every day. During prayer and meditation, those who practice them find themselves lost in thought and escaping whatever problems one might be experiencing.

The Mental Health Benefits of Prayer

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In recent years, research is being conducted exploring the positive effects that spirituality, especially prayer, has on mental health.

In a booklet, written by Dr. Deborah Cornah and published by the Mental Health Foundation of the United Kingdom1, Dr. Cornah reports that that literature found in eleven studies reported links between religion, spirituality, and trauma caused mental health problems such as PTSD.

Two other findings in the same literature found that trauma can deepen a person’s religion and spirituality and help people to cope. The positiveness, coping, readiness to face life questions, and religiousness are often associated with improved mental health and trauma recovery.

This research has prompted further studies across a wide range of disciplines to explore the positive contribution prayer can make to a person’s mental health.

Perhaps being able to reach out to something greater than ourselves gives humans an anchor to tie themselves to ground us so we can absorb and digest traumatic events of the past.

The Neuroscience Behind Prayer

Serotonin is known by many researchers as the “happy” neurotransmitter because it is key to helping to relay signals from one part of the brain to another. Another function of serotonin is how it impacts our mood and contributes to our overall sense of wellbeing.

Research has shown that prayer has a direct impact on the brain’s production of serotonin and bathes the neurons in the chemical enhancing lives and melting away stress.

Indeed, prayer has a replenishing effect on serotonin and other important neurotransmitters to create an environment where new brain cells are made and making those who practice it happier and healthier.

It can also be argued that serotonin isn’t only activated by prayer but that it is responsible for religiosity in humans altogether. Research conducted by Borg, Bengt, et al. (2003) found a correlation between the serotonin system in normal male subjects was a basis for religious experiences2.

Prayer as a Safe Haven from Trauma

Whether you believe in a higher power or not and believe prayer to be ineffective and unimportant in your own life, most will still acknowledge that there is something important happening in the lives of those who pray.

In fact, prayer and other religious observances play a significant role in helping those who have experienced trauma and live with mental health consequences. Prayer is a vital way many people use as a means to cope with everyday life and trauma history.

For many survivors, prayer offers a safe haven where they feel protected and ready for any disaster or trauma. A survey conducted by Schuster et al. (2001) related that after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 90% of Americans turned to prayer or some other religious activity to cope with what they had witnessed. An entire nation faced watching the airliners plunge into the twin towers in Manhattan on television and were traumatized by the experience. In the following days, many people returned to or began attending places of worship throughout the United States looking for consolation and a better understanding of why the tragedy happened.

Indeed, after Hurricane Katrina, 92% of survivors said they prayed and in doing so helped themselves get through their horrendous ordeal3.

The Conundrum of Prayer

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) has causes that relate to the core of an individual that is disrupted including their beliefs in who they are and their understanding of a higher power. While many survivors with CPTSD find prayer helpful, many find themselves feeling extreme shame and guilt when approaching a god.

The conundrum is easy to see. A survivor with CPTSD desperately wants to feel safe and thus prays to a higher power but feels utterly unworthy of their higher power’s care and protection.

Prayer can help reconnect survivors to their innate spiritual needs only if they can recognize the benevolence of such a being. In doing so, prayer helps to calm the stormy seas of the lives of people living with CPTSD by allowing them time to reflect and an anchor to hold onto in times of trouble.

Experiencing being attuned to the spiritual side of themselves is where survivors with CPTSD might find help in therapy.

Psychotherapy and Prayer

Silhouette of human hand with open palm praying to god

At one time, men and women of science would have poo-pooed the notion that prayer can help a person to heal but now the American Psychological Association has considered using prayer and other forms of religious practices as being conducive to good mental health. Indeed, when clients are dealing with serious mental health issues, two-thirds of Americans prefer to see a psychotherapist with spiritual values to one who does not5,6.

Therapists are now opened to discussing spiritual issues and religious practices such as prayer with their clients, however they report only discussing these things in their office with 30% of them7.

Only good can come from merging the need of clients to speak to their therapists about prayer, the willingness of mental health professionals to do so, and the benefits that research is finding for prayer. This merger can bring a sense of attachment and purpose to someone suffering from the effects of any severe mental condition including CPTSD.

Prayer Doesn’t Work for Everyone

This piece has relied heavily on research that proves that prayer helps those with complex traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions heal. However, not all the research points in this direction.

A paper, written by Benson, Sherwood, et al., (2006)8 found that prayer had no effect on complication-free recovery from serious coronary artery bypass surgery and in fact was associated with a higher incidence of complications.8

While arguably a physical health condition differs from a mental health disorder, there can be no argument that the two are intricately related. Prayer may or may not bring about satisfactory results and this can lead to disillusionment and serious complications to any disorder be it physical or mental.

One would do well to keep in mind that prayer isn’t a magical experience where all dreams and needs come true and get answered. It is vital to keep in mind that one can pray for protection but to rely solely on prayer to bring about safety is to invite more trauma into one’s life. Prayer is an exercise to help keep one grounded not make all one’s dreams come true.

Final Thoughts

While praying makes sense to those who are religious, it is a total travesty to those who are not. To them, it seems like a waste of time and energy and that facing life head-on is the best practice.

However, one does not need to be religious to see the transformation that praying to something greater than oneself brings to many people. The peace, joy, and comfort of prayer have been proven to increase and aid in both mental and physical health.

People living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder often feel afraid, hypervigilant, numb, and alone. Prayer changes all of this by allowing the person someone or something to lay their worries and fears upon. In doing so, the person who is praying is bringing out their fears so that they can see them better and learn to cope with them instead of hiding them away from their sight.

While this piece has been about prayer, one must remember there are other practices that can aid in grounding and supporting someone who feels afraid or threatened. The second piece in this series examined mindfulness, and the next piece will focus on meditation. Choose your coping skills and enjoy the benefits of healing.

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” ~ Soren Kierkegaard

References

  1. Cornah, D., (2006). The impact of spirituality on Mental Health a Review of the Literature. Mental Health Foundation.
  2. Borg, J., Andrée, B., Soderstrom, H., & Farde, L. (2003). The serotonin system and spiritual experiences. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160(11), 1965-1969.
  3. Meichenbaum, D. (2008). Trauma, spirituality, and recovery: Toward a spiritually integrated psychotherapy. unpublished paper, Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment, Miami.
  4. Pressley, J., & Spinazzola, J. (2015). Beyond survival: Application of a complex trauma treatment model in the Christian context. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 43(1), 8-22.
  5. Lehman, C. (1993, January 30). Faith-based counseling gains favor. The Washington Post, pp. B7–B8.
  6. Gallup, G. H., Jr., & Bezilla, R. (1994, January 22). More find religion important. The Washington Post, p. G10.
  7. Post, B. C., & Wade, N. G. (2009). Religion and spirituality in psychotherapy: A practice-friendly review of research. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65, 131–146. DOI:10.1002/jclp.20563
  8. Benson, H., Dusek, J. A., Sherwood, J. B., Lam, P., Bethea, C. F., Carpenter, W., & Drumel, D. (2006). Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American heart journal, 151(4), 934-942.

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