I am going to go out on a limb here. Belief in God, however you define God, beyond any particular religious affiliation, leads to some measurable positive health outcomes. Study after study and the collective wisdom of the world's indigenous health systems, not to mention our own intuitive experience, support the notion that having a spiritual belief system that incorporates a higher intelligence beyond our physical bodies, beyond this life, leads to an ability to navigate this life more successfully than those who do not have such beliefs. Success is defined here by a longer and healthier life. There, I said it.
Why is it so precarious to mention God in a scientific setting? Perhaps, because God is not measurable, and therefore beyond the scope of science, makes the discussion of God taboo. Mystery and uncertainty are difficult to endure in a scientific setting unless one is working towards an explanation that would eliminate that uncertainty. What is interesting to note is that science is now taking stabs at measuring the affects of believing in God, not whether God exists or not. This seems to be safe.
A recent study, published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, looked at the question of how someone's degree of belief in God, not religious affiliation, could be associated with outcomes in a mental health setting.1 In this particular study, 159 women and men who were engaged in treatment, mostly for depression, but also some being treated for bipolar disorder, anxiety and some other diagnoses, were asked about their belief in God. The degree to which they believed in God, or had a spiritual life, was then compared to their treatment outcomes. Those who had the higher levels of belief in God would have the strongest positive outcomes. The lead author of the study, David H. Rosmarin, connected the belief in God with the belief in the treatment. Those who had higher degrees of belief in God also had higher expectations for the treatments. Regardless of the mechanism, there was a strong correlation with belief in God with better treatment outcomes.
In another study, Dr. Marilyn Baetz found that those with panic disorder who had said that religion was very important to them had less stress and anxiety than those who did not feel that religion was as important after a year of treatment.2 In this case the study's authors felt that the mechanism was that higher degrees of spirituality led to lower levels of perceived stress. Stress, and how it is perceived, is one avenue of inquiry to follow.
Here is what you might find when you look into the science of stress and how it affects the immune system:
"Stress Weakens the Immune System" from a paper by the American Psychological Association,3 Or from a Stanford Medical School study, "Stress Strengthens the Immune System"4
I believe that they are both right. The explanation for this apparent contradiction is that there are certain amounts and degrees of stressors that actually act to enhance the immune system. In addition, beyond that amount of stress, chronic low-level stressors will certainly weaken the immune system over time. Dosage matters.
We all encounter stress in our lives. The question is how do we deal with it; both on a physiological level and on a mind level. The seamless integration of mind/body brings us back to the conscious and unconscious beliefs that shape how we experience circumstances, especially difficult ones. Let's again focus on how beliefs affect physical health.
In a meta- analyses of more than 160 studies of animals and humans published by the journal Applied Psychology, the overwhelming conclusion is that "Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity."5 One of these studies lasted over 40 years and followed over 5000 undergraduates and correlated higher degrees of pessimism to shorter lives. Another longer- lived study was the Catholic nun's study that found similar results. This famous study followed 180 nuns from early adulthood into old age, and death. From analyzing journal entries from the nuns when they were in their early twenties, those that were more optimistic and positive in their outlooks tended to live longer, healthier lives. Laboratory studies looked at immune markers, wound healing, stress hormones and cardio recovery after stressful conditions and correlated these measurements with degrees of psychological states. The more positive the mood or outlook, the better the physiological response.
The Health Belief Model (HBM), which was formulated almost 50 years ago as a model for how people seek out and utilize health services or practices, gets very narrow in its focus on belief and behaviors. The narrowness is in focusing on specific behaviors, such as wearing condoms or taking medication. The HBM formulated a matrix of beliefs that drive behaviors that might contribute to health outcomes. This matrix tries to the gauge the degree to which a positive outcome is gained and a negative one is avoided and how easy will it be to perform. This way of thinking has its usefulness but misses the bigger picture. It doesn't take into account the actions of those who have acquired habits or addictions, such as alcohol consumption. Habitual patterns of behavior require methods of probing the unconscious mind and working with the hidden belief systems that drive those habits. What is more interesting is looking at the habits of emotion or mood that initially drive the acquisition of habits such as smoking, or self-medication in general.
Dr. Steve Beller examines the connection between the beliefs one has and the eventual behaviors that result. Certain belief systems tend to create behavior patterns that don't serve us and exacerbate health challenges. He gives us a list:
- "Being overly passive and avoid dealing with problematic situations
- Having very low frustration tolerance and giving up quickly
- Being self-deceptive
- Feeling helplessness and hopeless
- Feeling ashamed and embarrassed
- Eating themselves up inside with stress
- Over-reacting by, for example, attacking, blaming and ridiculing
- "Self-medicating" with drugs and alcohol, over-eating, etc. in an attempt to lessen their emotional pain."
Some of Dr. Beller's examples of self-defeating thought patterns and beliefs:
- "I can't stand it...it's just intolerable!"
- "I'm helpless ... it's hopeless ... I just can't do it!"
- "This shouldn't be happening to me ... I shouldn't have to change ... it's not fair!"
- "It's my mother's fault for over-feeding me ..."
- "So I'll eat myself to death to show her"
- "I'm worthless and don't deserve to get healthy".
The question is how do people who rely more on their spiritual beliefs avoid these patterns of thinking and behaving? Is it self-selecting? Do people who think a certain way end up more inclined to have spiritual belief systems or does believing in God tend to shape the belief systems that drive the behaviors that promote health? It has long been established that married men tend to live longer than bachelors. The reasons are going to be difficult to decipher. There are many possibilities and maybe all of them contribute to some degree. For now it is simply a correlation. Cause and effect are harder to decipher.
I would like to point out something that may be obvious but still needs mention. The studies I have cited involve large numbers of subjects, which have implications for large groups of people. This does not mean that happy people do not get sick and die. It also does not mean that a positive outlook will heal someone of any particular illness. It does mean that all things being equal, it is better to be Winnie the Pooh than Eeyore.
I would like to suggest one mechanism of action may be that those who have a belief system that tends to the more spiritual have constructs of thinking that lead to more positive states of mind more often; such as appreciation, gratitude, wonder, curiosity, joy and acceptance. Even when so called negative states of mind arise, like fear, worry, anger, anxiousness and jealousy arise, the length of time, or degree to which those states of mind are indulged, are less than those with another conceptual structure. The conceptual structures that tend to be more successful have often been taught by the great wisdom traditions, which include the major religions. Regardless of whether or not these traditions have their historical baggage, there is without a doubt a stream of wisdom that has been handed down, generation to generation, that carries with it what is most useful to humanity. The trick is for each individual to choose what works and leave the rest, for the benefit of all. Amen
- Journal of Affective Disorders Volume 146, Issue 3 , Pages 441-446, 25 April 2013. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/10/how-faith-can-affect-therapy/
- Ed Diener, Micaela Y. Chan. Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-0854.2010.01045.x www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110301122156.htm
Click here for previous articles by Andrew Rader, LAc, MS.