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The Power of Prayer, Scientifically Speaking

COMMENTARY

As science uncovers more and more secrets of the natural world, it’s becoming clear that faith in God and respect for science are more than compatible: They reinforce each other.

“God’s creation is majestic, awesome, intricate, and beautiful – and it cannot contradict itself,” said Dr. Francis Collins, who once headed the Human Genome Project, at a National Prayer Breakfast. “He is the same God, whether you find Him in the cathedral or in the laboratory. He is in the laws of physics, but He is also the ultimate source of love and forgiveness.”

Science is catching up to the power of prayer, uncovering measurable benefits.

We’re told in no uncertain terms in the Scriptures to pray to our Creator. Among other things, it’s one way to keep us from worshiping false gods. It’s also the ultimate method of self-improvement.

As theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

Good for Mind, Body and Soul

Science cannot “prove” the efficacy of prayer, but it can document neurological and psychological benefits. A growing body of studies indicates that prayer is beneficial in many ways.

“The amassed research indicates that prayer is modestly but positively correlated with a range of mental health outcomes,” according to “Prayer and Mental Health,” an article published in December 2019 in Psychology Today. “These findings are demonstrated in two recent U.S. studies examining the relationship between prayer and mental health, both with large samples and scientific rigor.”

Young adults who prayed daily have fewer symptoms of depression, along with higher levels of life satisfaction and self-esteem contrasted with people who never pray, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2018. Church attendance also has a positive correlation with behavior:

“Compared with no attendance, at least weekly attendance of religious services was associated with greater life satisfaction and positive affect, a number of character strengths, lower probabilities of marijuana use and early sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners.”

In a California study of 2,000 adults with mental illness, more than 80 percent agreed or strongly agreed that spirituality was important to their mental health – and more than 70 percent agreed that prayer was beneficial.

Rob Whitley, Ph.D., who wrote the “Psychology Today” article, said the findings “overlap with my own research in Washington, D.C., on African-Americans in recovery from a mental illness. In this study, participants repeatedly told me that regular prayer was a major factor in their recovery.”

“Fight or Flight”

Reducing stress is one of prayer’s major physical and mental benefits. Stress is the body’s way of dealing with certain situations.  When we’re threatened, we’re flooded with the “fight or flight” hormones that include adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol, which quicken our responses, give us energy and heighten awareness. 

But this can be too much of a good thing, says Dr. Amit Sood, chair of Mayo Mind Body Initiative at the Mayo Clinic.

“When you stew on a problem, the body continuously releases cortisol, and chronic elevated levels can lead to serious issues,” she writes. “Too much cortisol can suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure and sugar, decrease libido, produce acne, contribute to obesity and more.”

Repeated stress exhausts the mind and weakens the body.

“Stress is a little like the story of the boy who cried wolf,” writes Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D. in Psychology Today. “In this story, a young boy persistently sounds the alert, warning of a wolf. Of course, each time is a hoax; there is no wolf. When you are constantly under stress, you are yelling wolf to your immune system. Eventually, it wears down and can no longer respond appropriately to a real danger.” 

Many therapists prescribe prayer or meditation to aid in de-stressing. Although the two activities have some common traits, they’re not the same; prayer is active and goal-directed, while meditation “is a goalless absorption in the here and now,” writes Shirley Davis on the website of the CPTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) Foundation. Both can have a calming effect, but only one taps the Ultimate Power in the Universe for help.

Brain Science and Prayer

So how does prayer fight stress and enhance our physical and mental health?  First, it takes the strain of life off of us and hands it over to our Creator, a huge transfer of responsibility.

“Cast your burden upon the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken” (Psalm 52:22).

In Matthew 11:28, Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

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One physical way the brain responds to prayer is the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that quells anxiety and gives people a sense of well-being.

“Research has shown that prayer has a direct impact on the brain’s production of serotonin and bathes the neurons in the chemical enhancing lives and melting away stress,” Ms. Davis writes in her article, “The Mental Health Benefits of Prayer.”

“Indeed, prayer has a replenishing effect on serotonin and other important neurotransmitters to create an environment where new brain cells are made and making those who practice it happier and healthier.”

Last June, in response to an article about the science of prayer in the Wall Street Journal, Jerry Gentile of Brooklyn, New York, wrote a letter to the editor:

“As a front-line medical professional, I would often pray under my mask and face shield. During a code blue, as I was praying, I didn’t realize I was praying loud enough for others to hear. The odd thing was that two of my colleagues actually asked me to pray louder so they could hear. I kept reciting Psalm 23:4. Everyone said it gave them a sense of calm and peace that was very much needed under the circumstances.”

Measurable benefits of prayer and faith are emerging in various studies.

“According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, individuals who reported having strong religious beliefs were found to report lower levels of anxiety and depression, have lower blood pressure, have a better immune system, and heal faster from surgery,” wrote Julia Hogan in “The Psychological Power of Prayer,” at Mind&Spirit.com.

Prayer can be a powerful factor in self-control. Temptations can lose their attractiveness when confronted with the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Scientists looking for a more materialistic explanation have posed the idea that social connection, including communicating with God, strengthens the brain.

“People interpret prayer as a social interaction with God, and social interactions are what give us the cognitive resources necessary to avoid temptation,” according to a Scientific American article, which adds, “This does not rule out the possibility that prayer has other effects on resisting temptation, and the spiritually inclined could see the hand of God as another causal factor here.”

To which the faithful who have experienced God’s “peace that passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:7) might well say, “no kidding” or perhaps, “it is well with my soul.

Robert Knight writes for the Timothy Plan which promotes investments with biblical principles.

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