More and more studies are finding a link between religious and spiritual practices and improvements in mental health, including significant reductions in anxiety and reduced risk of depressive illness.
While it is somewhat difficult to study this field, due to the wide variety of definitions and practices in the field of religion and spirituality, researchers are beginning to find ways to gain clear data about the influence of religion on health. Both traditional practices, such as attendance at a church or synagogue, as well as more outside-the-box spiritual practices, such as meditation, yoga or visualization, have been shown to affect people in positive ways.
Belonging to a group and participating in communal fellowship activities has positive effects in multiple areas, including reduced risk of stress-related heart disease and faster recovery times from illness or surgery. Religion also often gives people a sense of hope for the future, reducing or alleviating depressive symptoms. Prayer and meditation can help with stress management, giving a feeling of serenity and/or fulfillment. Volunteering for service related activities to give back to the community or reach out to people in need has also been shown to have powerful positive effects on one’s own health and sense of agency.
Negative impacts of specific types of religious are not unknown, but fewer examples of negative outcomes have been clearly identified in the literature. Some types of conflict stemming from the belief system or practice can result in increased anxiety, and experts recommend facing up to conflicts of this nature and resolving them. Religious communities can include teachings that seem to go contrary to their overall approach to the world or to a loving God, causing conflicts that need to be addressed. Sometimes you just find you have to go looking for a different church or different type of religious activity that avoids the conflicts you have perceived.
Overall, religious and spiritual practices and group membership have a positive impact on health and wellness. An increased sense of purpose and gratitude, a feeling of peace and serenity, a group to belong to, resources for facing hardships and disappointments, all of these can be the fruits of religious exploration.
Gonçalves JP, Lucchetti G, Menezes PR, Vallada H. Religious and spiritual interventions in mental health care: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. Psychol Med. 2015;45(14):2937-49.