• Stephanie Sullivan

Scientific Studies Show The Benefits of Prayer

Today, May 5th in America, is the National Day of Prayer. I have previously heard that meditation and prayer can both help with stress management and overall emotional wellbeing, clearing worries from your mind, and creating calm. I started researching this further, not with the intent to write a blog article about this, rather just to share a brief social media post for America’s National Day of Prayer. But, come to find out, there is more to share on this topic than I anticipated, and with research studies to back it up. Honestly, I was surprised to find many scientific studies on the numerous different benefits of prayer.

The studies revealed benefits not only to emotional wellbeing, but also in dealing with physical pain as well as difficult medical procedures/treatments. For example, one study examined the effects of prayer on women dealing with physical pain and/or difficult medical treatments such as radiation treatment for breast cancer and another study involved women dealing with pain following a caesarean section. I think you will be as surprised as I was with the research findings. And while meditation and prayer are both beneficial to mental or emotional health, they are not equally beneficial. A practice involving spirituality (versus secular) was shown to be more effective on reducing anxiousness and increasing positivity. One study compared the secular versus spiritual forms of meditation (prayer) and found that spiritual meditation resulted in less anxious and more positive people, compared to the secular meditation. (10)

Here is a summary of what I discovered from the various research studies (along with citations of the research studies).

Scientific studies have found these various benefits from prayer:

  • It can make you less reactive to negative emotions(8), less angry(1,8) and less aggressive(1)

  • It helps you see situations 'in a new light' or from a different perspective(1)

  • It can calm your nervous system, shutting down your “fight or flight” (i.e., stress) response.(1,9) In fact, the behaviour exhibited when praying is the opposite of entering the fight-or-flight [stress] response when there is danger or conflict.(1)

  • It can improve your relationship with your spouse or partner -- partners who pray for one another tended to be less aggressive and more inclined to forgive(2)

  • It can lift your mood, positivity and optimism. (3, 10)

  • It can not only lessen or reduce someone’s feelings of isolation, anxiety and fear(4), but also results in lower rates of depression, stress, and anxiety in people who pray, compared to those who do not pray. (3, 10) Furthermore, a study that compared secular and spiritual forms of meditation found that the spiritual meditation group was less anxious and more positive than the other groups. (10)

  • It can reduce feelings of isolation (4) and foster a sense of connection, either with a higher power, your personal values, your environment, and/or other people, living or deceased. (4,9)

"Prayer can foster a sense of connection whether it's to a higher power, what a person finds important in life or their values”, said Ryan Bremner, an associate professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. (4)
"Prayer can foster a a sense of connection -- with a higher power, your environment and other people, including “the generations of people who have prayed before you,” says Kevin Ladd, a psychologist and director of the Social Psychology of Religion Lab at Indiana University South Bend.(9)
  • It can bring calm to your mind.

"Rituals in general serve a calming function…They distract the mind which might otherwise go down one of those rabbit holes of useless worry, and they give us a sense of influence or control over something that may not be ultimately controllable." (4)
  • It can increase tolerance or reduce feeling of physical pain

  • One study found that praying helped women in handling pain following caesarean section. (5)

  • Another study found that it reduced feeling or improved tolerance to physical pain. Participants tolerated pain from an ice bath almost twice as long with praying, compared to not praying. (10)

  • It improved the quality of life (QOL index) in women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer. (7)

So, if you are dealing with feelings of isolation, stress, fear, anxiety, emotional or physical pain, maybe it worth trying prayer. If you're religious, prayer to your God, higher being, saints and/or angels. And if you're not religious, maybe prayer to the metaphysical universe / energy, past ancestors, or else exploring spiritual meditation.

Author's BIO & Contact Details

Stephanie Sullivan is a dual certified Life and Health Coach and founder of Elevate Your Life Coaching PTY LTD. After 23 years in demanding, high-stress corporate roles as a business consultant, then a corporate executive, she knows first-hand about stress and trying to balance career and parenting demands, along with personal needs and wellbeing. Now Steph’s purpose is helping people to make life changes to reduce stress, increase energy, and achieve their personal goals, life ambitions, and wellbeing.

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Research Study and Article References:

1 Ryan H. Bremner et. al, “Pray for Those Who Mistreat You”: Effects of Prayer on Anger and Aggression, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin XX(X) 1–8 © 2011 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.

2 Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2017). Prayer and forgiveness: Beyond relationship quality and extension to marriage. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(6), 734–741.

3 Boelens PA, Reeves RR, Replogle WH, Koenig HG. A randomized trial of the effect of prayer on depression and anxiety. Int J Psychiatry Med. 2009;39(4):377-92. doi: 10.2190/PM.39.4.c. PMID: 20391859.

4 Kristen Rogers, The psychological benefits of prayer: What science says about the mind-soul connection, CNN (Health), June 2020

5 Beiranvand S, Noparast M, Eslamizade N, Saeedikia S. The effects of religion and spirituality on postoperative pain, hemodynamic functioning and anxiety after cesarean section. Acta Med Iran. 2014;52(12):909-15. PMID: 25530054.

7 Jafari N, Zamani A, Farajzadegan Z, Bahrami F, Emami H, Loghmani A. The effect of spiritual therapy for improving the quality of life of women with breast cancer: a randomized controlled trial. Psychol Health Med. 2013;18(1):56-69. doi: 10.1080/13548506.2012.679738. Epub 2012 Apr 26. PMID: 22533516.

8 American Psychological Association. (2011, June). Prayer takes the edge off, a new study suggests. Monitor on Psychology, 42(6).

9 Elizabeth Bernstein, The Science of Prayer, The Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2020

10 Amy B. Wachholtz and Kenneth I. Pargament, Is Spirituality a Critical Ingredient of Meditation? Comparing the Effects of Spiritual Meditation, Secular Meditation, and Relaxation on Spiritual, Psychological, Cardiac, and Pain Outcomes, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Vol. 28, No. 4, August 2005 (C 2005) DOI: 10.1007/s10865-005-9008-5

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