My son, pay attention to what I say; turn your ear to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to one’s whole body.”Proverbs 4: 20-22
Is it possible that the act of prayer has impacts on your mental and physical health? Is our physical body naturally wired to have a spiritual side? Does following the teachings of the scriptures not only benefit us spiritually, but have health implications as well? What are the health benefits of prayer–if any? What does the research say?
In part 1, I explored the concept of prayer from a scriptural perspective. Scriptural concepts explaining why some prayers are answered and others are not were explored. In this post, research-backed evidence is examined concerning the health benefits of prayer.
Prayer frequency and self-ratings of health
The research linking prayer and health is interesting, though confounding factors have to be considered. For example, it is believed that prayer is more frequent and common for people when their health is failing (Mesenhelder & Chandler, 2001). This makes sense. If you are diagnosed with a serious health condition, fear and uncertainty can definitely drive you to pray. As such, prayer frequency might be expected to be correlated with worse health outcomes as opposed to better health outcomes.
However, researchers Meisenhelder and Chandler (2001) surprisingly found the opposite to be true. In a group of 1,412 Presbyterian pastors aged 26-80, those that prayed the most frequently (2 or more times per day) rated their health significantly higher (even when controlled for demographic variables such as age and gender) than those that prayed less frequently in three separate rating scales:
- General health
- Mental health
A homogeneous (meaning persons with similar characteristics) sample group was purposefully chosen so as to reduce confounding factors. In other words, the self-perceived superior health ratings can not be attributed to differences in religious beliefs or practices. Instead, with many factors in common, the difference in prayer frequency appears to be the differing factor.
Prayer and health outcomes: Interesting research findings
- In a study of 177 participants undergoing open heart surgery, both the use of prayer by the patient, or the patient having a secular reverence for art and nature were significantly linked to lower rates of post-operative complications. The use of prayer was linked to a 53% reduction in post-op complications, while those who practiced secular reverence had a 30% reduction in post-op complications. Researchers concluded that the spiritual emotion of a positive awe or wonder (as opposed to a fearful awe or wonder) promotes greater physical recovery (Ai, A. L., Wink, Tice, Bolling, Shearer, 2009)
- A shocking double-blinded study of 393 participants admitted to a coronary unit who were followed for a period of 10 months evaluated an intervention group of 192 patients that were prayed for by a Christian prayer-group meeting outside the hospital (intercessory prayer–or prayer for the health of others) (Byrd, 1988 as cited in McCullough, 1995). The remaining patients did not receive the prayer intervention. Neither the patients, study author, nor the medical staff knew which patients were in the intervention or control group. Twenty-six health measures were utilized, and no significant differences were noted PRIOR to the intervention of prayer between the two groups. Following the prayer intervention and the 10 months that followed, the group of patients for whom the Christians prayed for experienced significantly lower rates of congestive heart failure, heart attacks, pneumonia, need for medications such as diuretics and antibiotics, and need for ventilation support! However…
- It must be noted that a systematic review of 10 studies conducted by the respected Cochrane review team regarding intercessory prayer (where people pray on behalf of others who are sick) showed no significant benefits from intercessory prayer in terms of rates of death, medical status, re-hospitalization, or negative outcomes (Roberts, Ahmed, Hall, & Davison, 2009)
- In a review of 11 studies examining the practice of private prayer and health, 9 of 11 studies found a significant reduction in rates of depression for those that routinely practiced private prayer (Anderson & Nunnelley, 2016). In 10 studies reviewed by the same researchers, prayer significantly improved anxiety symptoms. Interestingly, prayer frequency did not appear to impact physical health in terms of blood pressure or health ratings in the studies reviewed by the researchers
- A study of 2,601 participants found that neither attendance at worship services alone, nor private prayer alone protected mental health as life stressors increased. However, when the two were combined (frequent private prayer AND regular worship service attendance), mental health was significantly buffered and protected against increased stressful life events. Even if the participants were negatively impacted by stressful life events, mental health declined at significantly lower rates for participants that frequently prayed privately AND frequently attended worship services versus those who did not both pray frequently AND attend worship services frequently (Rainville, 2018)
And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”Hebrews 10: 24-25, NKJV
How you pray/ what you pray for impacts your mental health
An interesting concept found in the research links how you pray/ what you pray for to mental health outcomes. Specifically, researchers have found that the following regarding prayer types and mental health outcomes:
Helpful prayer types per research:
- Meditative prayers focusing on feeling the presence of God and listening for answers from God are associated with a positive sense of well-being, a sense of strength, and happiness. Additional benefits include reductions in rates of anger, anxiety, and depression
- Colloquial prayers (defined by the researchers as talking to God as well as asking Him for guidance using your own words) are associated with improved sense of well-being, an increased sense of happiness, with reductions in symptom rates of anxiety and depression
- Disclosure to God: meditative and colloquial prayers were found to involve greater sharing of thoughts, feelings, and experiences with God. Higher rates of disclosure to God were found to be linked to significantly higher ratings of positive mood states (less anger and tension) and improved mental health (Winkeljohn Black, Pössel, Rosmarin, Tariq, & Jeppsen, 2017)
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”1 John 1: 9, KJV
Mixed or even negative types of prayer per research:
- Petitionary prayers (defined by the researchers as requests for material benefits) appear to either have no effect on anxiety or depression, or in some cases, appear to be associated with greater anxiety and depression rates
- Ritual prayers where people simply recite memorized lines or read pre-written prayers from books appeared to have mixed results in terms of depression and anxiety symptoms. Further, ritual prayer appeared to have little impact on sense of strength or in reducing anger (Winkeljohn et al., 2017)
Your view of God’s character + prayer frequency impacts your mental health
- Prayer frequency, beliefs about the nature of God, and anxiety measures were examined for 1,714 study participants. Prayer by itself, or when combined with a belief in an impersonal, non-caring God, or belief in a God that sometimes cares but sometimes is indifferent, had no significant impact on anxiety measures. Also belief in a personal, responsive caring God in absence of frequent prayer had no significant impact on anxiety measures. But when combining a belief in a caring, responsive God with frequent prayer, participants had lower rates of general anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive patterns, and compulsive patterns (Ellison, Bradshaw, Flannelly, & Galek, 2014)
Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”Isaiah 54: 10, NIV
The study of prayer is complex. The above studies focused on prayer generally from a Christian perspective. The research supporting the benefits of prayer seems to be strongest in terms of supporting mental health–producing an enhanced sense of well-being, decreasing anxiety, and acting as a buffer against life stress/ promoting resilience. However, how a person views God (personal and close versus distant and disinterested), how frequently they pray, how they pray, and how often they attend worship services all seem to enhance or undermine the impacts of prayer on mental health.
Based on the above evidence, the most health promoting aspects of prayer can be realized through the following means:
- Having a belief in a loving, caring, personal God
- Frequent prayer using your own thoughts and words, believing God is listening to you, disclosing your own worries, and confessing/ disclosing concerns while asking for guidance, or by meditating on God’s presence/ answers
- Having a positive sense of awe for God and His beautiful creation (such as an awe for the beauty of nature) during prayer may positively impact emotions that can promote physical healing/ stress reduction
The research concerning the power of prayer for helping someone else recover where the person being prayed for is unaware is mixed to negligible at best. Individual studies have had profound findings, but the findings have not held up consistently when the research is repeated at different times or circumstances. This is not particularly surprising for a believer in the scriptures. In part 1, I reviewed the many caveats the scriptures themselves place on prayer.
Finally, research on prayer and physiologic factors such as heart rate variability and brain imaging is currently limited/ unavailable. These are areas for future exploration. The research at this time appears to support the scriptural perspectives of belief in a loving God, the importance of genuine (as opposed to ritualistic) prayer, and collaborative worship as a means of supporting mental health and well-being.
NPR article: Prayer May Reshape Your Brain … And Your Reality
Ai, A. L., Wink, P., Tice, T. N., Bolling, S. F., Shearer, M. (2009). Prayer and reverence in naturalistic, aesthetic, and socio-moral contexts predicted fewer complications following coronary artery bypass. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. DOI 10.1007/s10865-009-9228-1
Anderson, J. W., & Nunnelley, P. A. (2016). Private prayer associations with depression, anxiety and other health conditions: an analytical review of clinical studies [Abstract]. Postgraduate medicine, 128(7), 635–641. https://doi.org/10.1080/00325481.2016.1209962
Ellison, C. G., Bradshaw, M., Flannelly, K. J., & Galek, K. C. (2014). Prayer, Attachment to God, and Symptoms of Anxiety-Related Disorders among U.S. Adults. Sociology of Religion, 75(2), 208–233. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.1093/socrel/srt079
McCullough, M. E. (1995). Prayer and Health: Conceptual Issues, Research Review, and Research Agenda. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 23(1), 15–29.
Meisenhelder, J. B., & Chandler, E. N. (2001). Frequency of Prayer and Functional Health in Presbyterian Pastors. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40(2), 323–329. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/0021-8294.00059
Rainville, G. (2018). The Interrelation of Prayer and Worship Service Attendance in Moderating the Negative Impact of Life Event Stressors on Mental Well-Being. Journal of Religion & Health, 57(6), 2153–2166. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10943-017-0494-x
Roberts, L., Ahmed, I., Hall, S., & Davison, A. (2009). Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 2009(2), CD000368. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD000368.pub3
Winkeljohn Black, S., Pössel, P., Rosmarin, D. H., Tariq, A., & Jeppsen, B. D. (2017). Prayer Type, Disclosure, and Mental Health Across Religious Groups. Counseling & Values, 62(2), 216–234. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.1002/cvj.12060