Explaining the Healing Power of Prayer

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Why does prayer help people through hard times? To find out, a graduate student in sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison interviewed 62 women who were the victims of partner violence.

The answer, he found, was multifaceted. Talking to a perceived higher power helped women cope with their emotions and abusive situations in various ways — by allowing them to vent without fear of a violent reaction, to view themselves in a positive light and simply to distract themselves from their immediate situation. (More on Time.com: Who’s Stressed in America? The Answer May Surprise You)

“Victims who used prayer to express their anger and frustration perceived God as a loving parental or friendly figure who was nonjudgmental and forgiving; thus, victims felt they could express their anger to this other in interaction without fear of judgment or negative retaliation,” author Shane Sharp wrote in the study published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly. “During prayer, victims came to see themselves as they believed God saw them. Since these perceptions were mostly positive, it helped raise their senses of self-worth that counteracted their abusers’ hurtful words.”

About 75% of Americans pray on a daily or weekly basis, but researchers are only just beginning to examine the psychological impact of the practice. Sharp finds that like real conversations with close friends or family, conversations with an imaginary other — God, that is — offer the same kind of social interaction and support for people who are isolated or victimized. And unlike conversations held in counseling sessions or with other people, prayer can be invoked during actual episodes of abuse. (More on Time.com: How Retail Therapy Works: Spending Money for Social Acceptance)

In another recent study on the social-interaction aspect of religion, researchers — also from the University of Wisconsin-Madison — found that church-goers gleaned benefits to their well-being more from their religious friends than from their faith. Alice Park reported on Healthland:

Using data from the Faith Matters Study, a survey of U.S. adults conducted in 2006 and 2007, Lim and his colleagues found that 33% of those who attended religious services every week and reported having close friends at church said they were extremely satisfied with their lives, while only 19% of those who went to church but had no close connections to the congregation reported the same satisfaction.

Sharp notes, however, that the social effects of religion are not always one-sidedly beneficial (or detrimental). While prayer can be a powerful source of solace and a way for victimized women to learn to forgive their abusers, he finds that it can also keep some women from getting out of violent situations.

Sharp writes about “Nancy,” a 45-year-old woman who stayed in a violent relationship:

When I interviewed Nancy, she was still married to her abusive husband. Nancy told me that her husband would argue and be emotionally abusive to her quite often. To deal with the negative emotions that arose during these abusive episodes, Nancy would interact “silently” with God to distract herself from the hurtful words of her husband. According to Nancy, these interactions provided a “neutral focal point” that she could concentrate on during these times of “emotional crisis”: “I think it helps you keep your sanity in the midst of emotional crisis, turmoil … it just gives you a, kinda a neutral focal point that, that, a place where you can go emotionally and be calm in the midst of no calm.”

While the participants of the current study tended to identify as religious and were victims of extreme circumstances, Sharp suggests the findings may apply to the rest of us as well. He views prayer as a social — rather than purely religious — interaction, so he thinks even atheists can benefit from talking with an imagined listener. (More on Time.com: Religion’s Secret to Happiness: It’s Friends, Not Faith)

That may well be true, as long as the imaginary listener is someone or something other than God. In a study published in August in Psychological Science, researchers analyzing people’s brain activity found that thinking about God tended to relieve people’s anxiety and distress after they had made mistakes on a computer test — but only if those people were believers. In contrast, atheists who were primed to think about religion or God before taking the same computer test showed more anxiety in the face of errors, possibly because “thoughts of God may contradict the meaning systems they embrace and thus cause them more distress,” LiveScience.com reported.

That doesn’t preclude atheists from finding happiness or well-being, of course. They just need to focus on their own beliefs and find friends who share them.

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