Does Religion Help You Cope?

Did you know that, compared to non-churchgoers, people who regularly attend church services, pray, and read scripture are more likely to have low blood pressure and strong immune systems? That they less likely to suffer depression from stressful life events? That if they do get depressed, they are more likely to recover? That they have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer?

Sounds like religion is a winner, doesn’t it? But, before you head to church and praise the lord, let’s dig into this information a bit. It would appear that religious faith provides health benefits for folks because their faith system, their spirituality if you will, is part of an overall approach to life they have developed. Sincerely and intrinsically spiritual people – we use “spiritual” to emphasize that we don’t mean those who follow a particular church or denomination – tend to have positive thinking styles about life. Events in their lives are not perceived as random and accidental, but as part of an overall pattern or plan. Furthermore, unpleasant circumstances are seen as challenges to be confronted, not as something beyond their control and potentially devastating.

Psychological studies show that spiritual people exhibit many of the traits we talk about in this blog: They tend to accept themselves and others as they are; they accept their responsibilities, and can enjoy themselves and live relatively free of guilt; they function in reality; they see the value of taking care of their bodies by following health-enhancing behaviors. In short, their sincere and intrinsic spirituality encourages them to appreciate and participate in life, following practices that we know assist in effective coping.

There’s no secret to maximizing the probability of being physically and emotionally healthy and feeling good. These states evolve and emerge from focusing on those parts of your life that are under your control: your actions, thoughts, and the perceptions and interpretations you make about events and people around you. A sense of coherence and purpose to life, and the confidence to meet the challenges of life, evolve from these lifestyles. We know of no anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drugs, or any other type of prescription or recreational substance, that has such positive, long-term psychological consequences.

Several times we have used the words “sincere” and “intrinsic” to clarify what we mean by faith and spirituality. Your internal compass, no matter where it comes from, must be genuine. Merely paying lip service to a Supreme Being just won’t cut it. You might go to church so someone will see you there and think more highly of you, but this use of religion to obtain non-spiritual goals will not translate into better physical and psychological health. For a personal faith system to be part of a healthy and productive lifestyle, that faith must be valued for itself, not for the material rewards, status, or power it may bring. Faith that brings good health and a feeling that you can exercise some control and direction in your life is a faith that is genuine and honest. Such faith can be a principal motivating force in your life, and something that influences your everyday behavior and decisions.

Spiritual people show many characteristics of being self-actualized: they have a sense of purpose, usually humanitarian in nature; they feel deeply connected to other people and have empathy for others; they can look at the world with an open mind, eager to find fresh ideas and perspectives; they do not rely on extreme points of view that stifle their flexibility to meet varying challenges; they have a strong sense of personal ethics and responsibility; they enjoy applying their problem-solving skills to real-world situations, avoiding emotion-based reactions when faced with stress.

Spirituality can help many learn to cope with stress, and there is even a form of counseling – pastoral counseling – that focuses on religious belief, but that doesn’t mean a belief in God is absolutely essential for the coping journey for all people. Discovering personal values, a sense of purpose, morality, ethics, civility, and developing a social conscience that focuses on the welfare of others can proceed independently of religious belief.

Greg entered therapy because he felt passive and dependent. “I always seem to be searching for someone to depend on because I have lousy self-esteem and no confidence in my own abilities. I have a good job, a loving family, but something’s missing. I go through the motions every day, but why do I bother? Is this all there is? What if I leave here today and step off the curb outside and get run over and killed by a car? Would it matter in the long run? Am I useful or needed? Sometimes I don’t think so.”

One day a co-worker, Ryan, came to Greg and asked him for help with a project he was working on. “I’m really having trouble with this, Greg, and I wish the boss hadn’t given it to me. I honestly don’t have much confidence in my ability to do it.” Greg was immediately interested because he felt a connection to Ryan. “When he said he didn’t have confidence in himself I related because that was me, too. Over the next couple of weeks, I helped him out and found myself working on his poor self-esteem. I found myself saying things my own counselor had been saying to me over the past three months in my sessions. It was amazing. One day I realized that I was being something of a counselor for Ryan, and at the same time, doing that was therapeutic for me. I began to understand what empathy really was, and how my empathy for Ryan was helping him and helping me! Like I said, it was amazing.”

Spirituality can help in the empathy process but it’s not essential to discovering the meaning of empathy. Empathy is not sympathy, but a level of understanding that benefits both giver and receiver. Empathetic service to others helps eliminate the need for a dominating figure to run your life; it eliminates the need to seek artificial chemical crutches to help you cope by giving you the beauty and grace of other people; it helps you enjoy self-fulfilling discoveries along a meaningful and enjoyable road of life as a part of humanity. If your spirituality helps you on that journey, that’s great. But if you don’t feel you’re a spiritual person, that’s OK; don’t give up. Greg was not a spiritual person, but circumstances helped him discover how service to others benefits both giver and receiver.

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