Can Spirituality Or Religion Protect Us From Depression?
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There has been a great deal of controversy about the impact of religion on mental health recently. So, what's your side of the debate? Religious people have often raised a valid point about why spirituality should be included by psychiatrists in the treatment of mental illness. Recently, a number of respected psychiatry journals have published articles about a lower risk of depression in people who are religious or spiritual. This is certainly controversial, because firstly, how does one conceive of measuring such a confusing topic as religion or spirituality? Secondly, should studies that explore the relationship of religion or spirituality with health even be covered and reported within practical scientific literature?
The scientific question of whether religion, on a personal level, helps or harms the human psyche is a reasonable one. Religion and spirituality have a substantial presence in the lives of many people and it can lend significant benefits in resiliency. Religious folks tend to feel that, no matter what happens, they have a spiritual connection to something greater. Also, the spiritual and religious don’t seem to struggle as much with the existential question of “why am I here - what's my purpose?” that can bother the non-spiritual person. When traumatized, spiritual or religious people tend to struggle less with feelings they are unloved and unworthy - They are more resilient. Individuals who are more committed to their religious faith and spiritual convictions tend to be happier, healthier, and have more coping resources at their disposal than those for whom religion and spirituality are less important.
For approximately 150,000 years, as long we humans have existed on this planet, spirituality has been a significant part of our human history and evolution. The ability to conceptualize religious ideas or a connection to others is part of what separates us from the other animals. To put it simply, spirituality is a way of explaining ourselves and the world around us for most members of mankind, and spirituality helps to define to makeup and image of our sense of "Self". Even our hunter-gatherer ancestors believed in spiritual practices, and evidence of ancient spirituality has been seen for thousands of years as evidenced by the ritual burying of their dead with special objects to take to the afterlife.
Spirituality = 75% Less Depression Risk
So now that we’ve established that spirituality is a part of being human, what is the actual data? The first long-term study of religiosity and risk of major depression was published in the Green Journal by authors from Columbia University in January of 2012.
The 10-year study assessed the mental health of 114 adult children of parents both with and without depression. All participants were Catholic or Protestant, and their religiosity was measured by self-report of importance of spiritual beliefs and church attendance.
The researchers found a link between religiosity/spirituality and a reduced risk of major depression, because individuals who reported having a strong connection to religion or spirituality at the beginning of the study, were found to have approximately one-fourth the risk of experiencing major depression as other participants by the end of the study. They also had fewer repeat episodes of depression than those who were not religious. Furthermore, the researchers wanted to determine whether high-risk adults who reported a high importance of religion or spirituality had thicker cortices of the brain than those people who reported moderate or low importance of religion or spirituality.
The Brain Grows
The results showed that the self-reported importance of religion or spirituality was associated with thicker cortex in various regions of the brain. They researchers concluded that religion or spirituality appears to protect people who have a familial risk of depression from developing the illness, and it may be due to the fact that religion or spirituality thickens the cortices of the brain.
People who engage in regular meditation or another spiritual practice are linked to a thickening of the brain cortex in important regions and show more metabolic activity there than those who reported themselves to be non-spiritual. We know some of the benefits of meditation on daily life include being present, focused, breathing, blood pressure, stress, attention span, organization, relationships, ability to effectively manage life, work and family- of course, the list is extensive. This discovery could lead to new insights as to why these activities help guard against depression, particularly in those who are genetically predisposed to the mental health disorder.
Regular Church Attendence Not Necessary for Benefits
The findings showed that although regular attendance at church was not necessary, a strong personal importance placed on spirituality or religion was most protective against major depression in people who were at high familial risk. Although more research is needed, the results suggest that spirituality or religion may protect against major depression by thickening the brain cortex and counteracting the cortical thinning that would typically occur with major depression. The finding that religion may also benefit mental health, as backed up by scientific studies, is significant. Hopefully this finding will make mental health care workers more aware of and open to exploring spiritual resources for meeting the needs of their patients.
- Jeff Stein
Brains, Spirituality, and Depression. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2015, from http://www.psychologytodaycom/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201401/brains-spirituality-and-depression
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