How religion can help people cope with life's greatest trials

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa/The National
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa/The National

Last week Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, was seen cycling around the emirate with friends before stopping to pray at the roadside in a residential area. Physical exercise is a great way to promote psychological well-being. The same can be said of prayer.

During the 20th century, psychologists generally ignored religion. It was seen as being too subjective, not something easily studied in the lab. In one survey of over a 1,000 members of the American Psychological Association, just 1.4 per cent expressed an interest in researching religion.

One explanation for this was the desire for psychology to be more closely identified with the physical and biological sciences – the "proper" sciences. Some of my psychology students still demand lab coats.

In recent decades, though, it has become impossible to ignore the massive impact of religion on behaviour, attitudes, choices and emotional states – all of which are of interest to psychologists and social scientists. Researchers today increasingly explore the interplay between religion and psychology. Their results are published in journals with titles like Mental Health, Religion and Culture and the American Psychological Association's Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

One consistent finding that emerges from this growing body of work is an inverse relationship between religiosity and depression. A review of 147 independent studies, including a combined total 98,975 participants, confirms the link.

To further explore the religiosity-depression relationship, a study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry observed 114 adults for 10 years. Compared to their less religious counterparts, participants initially categorised as highly religious had a 90 per cent lower risk of experiencing a major depressive episode over the 10-year period.

Google searches for 'prayer' rose during March to the highest level since records began to be kept

Similar links have been observed across cultures and religious traditions. These findings, however, give rise to an important question: why? What is it about spiritual or religious practice that appears to make some people more resilient? What are the protective mechanisms at play?

One idea is that religious people turn to faith for solace in times of stress to find meaning in adversity. Such coping typically helps people look at the bigger picture and reframe the situation to remain hopeful about the future.

Studies have looked at mental health in the aftermath of terror attacks such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing in the US that killed 168 people and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that claimed more than 1,200 lives. The findings of these studies speak of links between religious coping and better mental health outcomes.

Religious coping has also been found to be associated with improved psychological well-being among terminally ill cancer patients, as well as a host of other studies that examine religious coping in people who face a range of other daunting life stressors such as substance addiction, domestic abuse and divorce. Religious coping seems to be one way to navigate adverse life experiences successfully.

People attend Friday prayers in a mosque damaged in Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 7, 2020. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
People attend Friday prayers in a mosque damaged in Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area in Lebanon on August 7. Aziz Taher / Reuters
Victori Massoud, who was injured during Tuesday's blast, attends a Sunday service at a damaged church, in Beirut, Lebanon August 9, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Victori Massoud, who was injured during Tuesday's blast, attends a Sunday service at a damaged church, in Beirut, Lebanon on August 9. Hannah McKay / Reuters

This year has been full of adverse experiences; Covid-19 has stressed many of us in different ways. Perhaps unsurprisingly, global levels of religious coping seem to be on the rise this year. Jeanet Benzen, an associate professor of economics at the University of Copenhagen, used Google search data from 95 countries to look at the frequency of religion-related searches.

The term "prayer", for example, showed a pronounced spike in March, around the time the world started locking down. In fact, Google searches for “prayer” rose that month to the highest level since records began, surpassing all other significant religious occasions, such as Christmas, Easter and Ramadan. Similar patterns were also observed for other faith-related search terms: God, Allah, Bible, Quran, internet church.

The Bani Hashim mosque, Abu Dhabi, July 30. Victor Besa / The National
The Bani Hashim mosque in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National

Whatever helps us get through tough times is welcome, provided there are no side effects. Psychologists, psychotherapists and mental health professionals in general are waking up to the therapeutic wisdom in the world's great religious traditions. We now have religiously integrated cognitive therapy and spiritually sensitive social work practices. There are also new psychotherapeutic approaches that have integrated meditation, a practice found in many religious traditions, as an essential component of the intervention. Examples include mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy.

There are, however, negative or maladaptive forms of religious coping, too – styles of religious coping that can make psychological problems worse. Religious coping, of course, is not for everyone, nor should it stop people, if needed, from seeking help or solace from other sources.

Several practices promote psychological well-being – exercise and a spiritual discipline being just two, as personified by Sheikh Mohammed. And while psychological well-being may not be the primary goal of all such practices, it is a bonus.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: August 10, 2020 02:31 PM


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