Healing Through Faith

Her husband and young sons were murdered in a brutal and shocking attack in Toulouse, France. In just a few short minutes, her life was shattered. Yet a few days later, the young mother released a public letter to her fellow community members proclaiming an unwavering faith and an assertion that God would somehow lead her out of her despair and guide her recovery.

Her religious commitment is inspiring, especially given the dire circumstances which triggered her proclamation. And while most of us will never be faced with such a profound loss, her devotion raises the issue of whether or not a deep belief in a higher power can alleviate pain, loss and anxiety in general.

Religion's Impact On Mental Health

Anxiety is characterized by persistent and consuming feelings of worry. Sufferers experience a host of fears, though such emotions are not always warranted or provoked. In the case of a trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop, while other anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder may result from other experiences. Personality traits, biological and genetic factors, gender, and life experiences play a role in determining why some people develop anxiety disorders while others don't. Research conducted last year by scientists at New York University School of Medicine suggested that a biological marker for PTSD may exist that could help identify those at-risk for developing PTSD. Experts continue to explore various factors that may explain why some of us are more prone than others to developing mental illnesses.

Strong Faith Can Relieve Anxiety

In terms of spirituality, scientists have examined the effects of religion on people's emotions, with results suggesting that deep convictions often do relieve anxiety, depression and despair. Such findings may be readily explained. For those afraid of dying, their fear is often alleviated with belief in the afterlife, for example. Religions also provide stability and order in a chaotic outside world. Religious institutions also create supportive communities that encourage the sharing of both positive and negative experiences; most religious institutions have established rituals to mark many of life's exciting yet stress-provoking events.

In the wake of a global recession, many Americans are confronted by financial hardships and painful economic realities. Financial stress can wreak havoc on a household, shaking up family foundations and resulting in much insecurity about the future. Can a belief in a spiritual god bring perspective?

The Uplifting Effect Of Religion

A study released a decade after 9/11 found better coping methods among devout Americans than among their non-spiritual counterparts. That benefit was seen in both those who partook in traditional religious services, via church or synagogue attendance, and those who held religious beliefs but were not necessarily associated with any institution. The research showed that the greater the involvement in religious activities and services, the more people experienced positive feelings and fewer associated physical problems.

The Mussar Movement, a Jewish philosophy that is currently experiencing resurgence among Jews and non-Jews, holds that trust in God, though not without commitment and positive actions, can dissolve excessive worrying. Like the common adage that 'God works in mysterious ways,' the principle holds that as mortals we cannot foresee the future, but events occur for reasons that will eventually reveal themselves. Such religious convictions suggest that in humbling ourselves by recognizing our limitations, we both honor that spiritual being and find peace and deeper happiness.

So is religion the answer to all our problems? Clearly for some, it is. Yet, for others, relinquishing control to an intangible and unproven ideal falls short of providing relief to lingering concerns.

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Nancy De Andrade, Ph.D, OM
Nancy A. Pachana, Ph.D., FAPS, FASSA
Tony Attwood, Ph.D.
Katherine J. Gold, M.D., M.S.W., M.S.


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