How Faith Helps You Cope with Stress
Having a belief in something greater than your immediate experience can be a powerful force in helping you create inner peace and cope with the stress in your life. We live in a universe that is both mystifying and, at times, overwhelming. We attempt to give meaning and purpose to our all-too-brief lives.
Faith in something bigger, something cosmic, can help some people come to grips with the unknown and perhaps unknowable. No one right way exists for finding a sense of spiritual connectedness. For many, this belief may take the form of a belief in God and involvement in a traditional religious system of beliefs.
However, your spirituality may take a different form. It may be a belief in a more global, more vaguely articulated higher power or higher purpose. Or it may take the form of a belief in such values as the human spirit, the human community, or nature.
How your faith can help you reduce stress
Whatever form your spiritual beliefs take, growing evidence shows that faith can be a powerful stress buffer, enhancing your ability to cope with life’s more serious stresses. Faith can help you cope with illness, and it may even help you live longer. The reasons why faith helps are both direct and indirect:
Faith can provide meaning and purpose. Having a deeply felt belief system can help you cope with many of the perplexing and distressing questions that surround the meaning of existence. Why are you here? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What happens when you die?
Faith can strengthen stress-effective values. Virtually all religions promote the values of love and kindness and condemn stress-producing feelings such as anger, hostility, and aggression.
Faith can provide hope and acceptance. It encourages a sense of optimism and hopefulness that things will work out for the best. Faith also helps you accept what doesn’t work out and what you can’t control.
Faith unites you with others. It can create a sense of community that often brings people together in a mutually supportive way. Having others to be with and share with can lower your stress. Belonging to a religious organization can put you into contact with others in the wider community who are less fortunate in some way, which allows you to play a helping role.
Faith can calm you. It often involves prayer and contemplation, which, like meditation and other forms of bodily relaxation, can result in a range of physical changes that reduce stress.
The power of prayer for reducing stress
Dr. Herbert Benson, a pioneer in the field of faith, relaxation, and stress reduction, has studied the role of prayer and its effects on stress. Benson found that by having individuals include words or sentences with religious meaning in their program of meditative relaxation, the levels of relaxation they attained were significantly higher than in those who didn’t include religious content.
The content could be as simple as a word or phrase taken from a traditional prayer (the Lord’s Prayer, for example) or a word from a spiritual text (such as shalom, meaning “peace,” or echad, meaning “one”).
Research about the power of belief
A number of studies now document the importance of faith in strengthening one’s coping ability. Just take a look at these:
A recent National Institute of Mental Health study, for example, found that people who consider religious beliefs to be a central element in their lives experience lower amounts of depression than does a control group.
In another study, researchers in Evans County, Georgia, looked at the stress-reducing effects of regular churchgoers when compared with non-churchgoers. They found that blood pressure measurements were significantly lower for the committed churchgoers.
In a different study, in Washington County, Maryland, researchers found that those who attend church on a routine basis are much less likely to die of heart attacks than are infrequent churchgoers. (Researchers made sure the results had nothing to do with smoking, drinking, and other variables that may have clouded the results.)
In a study conducted in Israel, researchers compared the health of secular and orthodox Israelis and found that the less-religious or non-religious group had a risk of heart attack that was four times higher than their religious counterparts. Also, the non-religious group had higher levels of cholesterol than did the more religious group.