On World Mental Health Day, October 10, it is apt to reflect on the intimate connection between religion and mental health. Studies indicate that devout and religious people have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as a better ability to cope with stress. Certain religious practices may even change the brain in a way that boosts mental health!

However, religion could also be a double-edged sword: Negative religious beliefs, for example, god will punish you, have been linked with harmful outcomes, including higher rates of depression and lower quality of life, writes Rachael Rettner, senior journalist in LiveScience.

“If people have a loving, kind perception of god, and feel god is supportive, they seem to experience benefits,” said Kenneth Pargament, a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “But we know that there’s a darker side to spirituality,” Pargament added. “If you tend to see god as punitive, threatening or unreliable, then that’s not very helpful.”

A large body of research   has tied religious beliefs with positive outcomes for mental health.  A 2005 study of older adults found that being religious served as a buffer against depression among people in poorer health, with the highest levels of depression among those who were in poor health and not religious. Further, a 2013 study found that religious patients who are being treated for mental-health issues such as depression or anxiety responded better.

“People who are more involved in religious practices and who are more religiously committed seem to cope better with stress,” Koenig said. “One of the reasons is because (religion) gives people a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and that helps them to make sense of negative things that happen to them,” Koenig said. A person’s religious community can also provide support and encouragement through hard times, writes Rettner.

Brain studies may provide an explanation for the link between religion and mental-health benefits. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia says that meditation activate areas of the brain involved in regulating emotional responses.

A 2010 study by Newberg and colleagues that included brain scans of Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns found that these long-term meditators had more activity in frontal-lobe areas such as the prefrontal cortex, compared with people who were not long-term meditators. Strengthening these areas of the brain may help people be “more calm, less reactionary, better able to deal with stressors,” Newberg said.

It’s also possible that the practices advocated by a religion — like forgiveness, love and compassion — may “become integrated into the way the brain works,” Newberg added. The more often certain neural connections are used, the stronger they become, so if a religion advocates compassion, the neural circuits involved in thinking about compassion become stronger. “So you keep coming back to these positive feelings and emotions, and that reduces stress, anxiety, and can lead to reduction in stress hormones,” Newberg said. But instead of advocating love and compassion, if a religion advocates hatred and violence, these negative beliefs would also become part of the way the brain works, Newberg said.

Pargament has also found that when people believe that god has abandoned them, or when they question god’s love for them, they tend to experience greater emotional distress and increased tension.

“These kinds of struggles have to do with the aspects of life that you hold sacred,” Pargament said. “When you get shaken to that level, then … it’s going to be very distressing.”

Since religion affects the most intimate part of ourselves, it can shape our mental well-being, both positively and negatively!

 (The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)

Columnist: 
Kuruvilla Pandikattu