For Christians, prayer is an everyday part of life, although its benefits are often taken for granted. For example, did you know that prayer has research-proven psychological and physiological benefits? According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, individuals who reported having strong religious beliefs were found to report lower levels of anxiety and depression, have lower blood pressure, have a better immune system, and heal faster from surgery.
While prayer shouldn’t just be about the psychological and physical benefits, it’s gratifying that the scientific research supports the experience of so many Christians: prayer is a powerful and positive force in our lives. Prayer is the primary way to connect with God and, as such, it can also serve as a powerful tool for helping successfully cope with stressful experiences.
Here are just a few of the specific ways that prayer can benefit you psychologically and physiologically when used in times of stress.
Prayer Increases Self-Control
When you pray the Our Father and say, “Lead us not into temptation,” you are identifying just one of the psychological benefits of prayer. It turns out that research has found that prayer can help increase your self-control. Scientific American cited a study where participants were asked to pray for five minutes before being asked to suppress an emotion and concentrate on a task (not an easy task by any means). Those who prayed were better able to suppress their emotions and concentrate on the task at hand than those who did not pray before. The researchers believe that conversing with God is a form of social interaction which has been shown in other studies to help us resist temptation. So praying “lead us not into temptation” is not an empty plea. Regular prayer can help you increase your self-control and resist temptation. This can be especially beneficial in times of stress when you may be tempted to engage in unhealthy ways of coping with stress like isolating yourself from others, turning to alcohol, drugs or food, or making other unhealthy choices.
Prayer Regulates Emotions
Prayer can also help you better regulate your emotions, especially negative emotions. For example, one study found that saying a prayer when angry can help to reduce your feelings of anger. Why does this help you better regulate your emotions? The researchers theorize that prayer can help you reflect on your experiences and change how you think and feel about an event. Often when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to be irritable or quick to react negatively to situations. Being stressed primes you to be more likely to react negatively. So the next time someone says something unkind to you, pause, take a deep breath, and say a sincere prayer instead. Taking a God-centered and prayerful approach to the situation will most likely help you react in a more positive and charitable way.
Prayer Reduces Anxiety and Depression
Researchers have also found that individuals who report having strong religious beliefs experience less of an anxious response and feel calmer, according to the American Psychological Association. Further, research has found that people with strong religious beliefs are less prone to anxiety and depression. While this doesn’t mean that having a strong prayer life will prevent anxiety and depression, it does mean that it can serve as a protective factor.
Having a strong spiritual life can also aid in the treatment process for anxiety and depression. The Mental Health Foundation cites research demonstrating that having a strong spiritual life can provide the meaning and purpose that can be a powerful part of the healing process for someone who struggles with depression. Dr. Aaron Kheriaty writes about the importance of the virtue of hope in treating depression in his book, The Catholic Guide to Depression. To be clear, psychotherapy and medication are an important part of treating anxiety and depression and these treatments complement the grace that comes from prayer. God gave us the sciences and medicine to help promote physical and psychological healing. Prayer can be particularly helpful with calming anxious thoughts and instilling hope against depressive thoughts.
Prayer Promotes a Calm Mind
One technique commonly used in psychotherapy to reduce anxiety and promote a calm mind is repeating a calming phrase to oneself. Research shows that repeating a calming phrase can lower your heart rate, calm brain activity in a positive way, and promote the release of nitric oxide, a chemical which counteracts the effects of the hormone norepinephrine which is released when you are stressed. You could repeat a generic calming phrase such as, “I am safe and calm,” but why not use repetitive prayer instead? Pick a phrase that is meaningful and soothing to you such as, “Jesus, I trust in you,” and concentrate on repeating the phrase to yourself as you take deep breaths when stressed. The American Psychological Association cites research that shows that contemplative spiritual practices increase your ability to pay attention and quiet the areas of the brain that focus on the self. This could mean that prayer can help you better focus on calming yourself when anxious. This is a great way to incorporate your faith into research-proven stress-management techniques.
A strong spiritual life and, in particular, a strong prayer life can be an important component in taking care of your psychological well-being and it plays a complementary role to medication and psychotherapy. The next time you feel intense negative emotions or experience a spike in stress, invite God into the stresses of your daily life and try using prayer as one of your coping techniques.