The Bible, The Brain, and The Blues
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Are religious individuals less likely to be depressed? Can meditation cure be good for the brain? Some experts say yes and are devoting more and more time to studying the connection between spirituality and mental health. Religion has shown up in many forms since the dawn of time. Spirituality has played a distinct role in shaping history and society and is tightly woven into many cultures from the ancient Egyptians to today’s “Bible Belt.”
There are those who believe religion and health go hand-in-hand as evidenced by the numerous healing services performed in churches and other religious institutions around the world. Spiritual healers have been present in many diverse cultures for centuries. Also, it has long been thought by Eastern gurus and a growing percentage of psychological experts that meditation with its mind-quieting and centering properties can fight depression and improve well-being.
There is logic to the claim that being a spiritual person will reduce your chances of being depressed. Those who follow a religion or consider themselves spiritual often have a religious community giving them a support network. For example, those who belong to churches have access to counseling performed by clergy and pastoral care.
Many say their faith gives them a sense of purpose and peace, which could improve mood. There are certainly enough people who believe that incorporating religion into their lives has made a change for the better. Who hasn’t heard a testimony of someone who says that finding the right house of worship or turning to Christ turned his or her life around? There is anecdotal evidence abounding to suggest that religion is good for mental well-being.
“I’ve seen non-spiritual folk struggle more, perhaps, with feelings they are unloved and unworthy when traumatized than those with a spiritual “back-up” who feel that, no matter what happens, they have a spiritual connection to something greater,” says psychiatrist Emily Deans, M.D., in an article in Psychology Today. “In addition, the spiritual and religious don’t seem to wrestle as much with those existential question of “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” that can plague the non-spiritual.”
For some, the opposite could be true. Religious affiliation could cause feelings of guilt. Instances of betrayal within church leadership could lead to fear and doubt. However, there seem to be either more cases of religion doing more good than harm or the pro-religious camp is more vocal about the benefits. There are those in the psychological realm who dismiss these the idea that spirituality can have an effect on mental health. These experts say that religion does not belong in science and question why research dollars are wasted on such ideas. However, some researchers say there is science to back up the idea that religious people are less depressed.
Dean cites two articles published in the Green Journal. In 2012 researchers from Columbia University studied 114 individuals who had a family history of depression. Their study showed that those who reported they were religious were only about ¼ as likely to be diagnosed with a serious depression disorder as non-religious participants. Even those who identified as religious who had previous bouts of depression had fewer repeat occurrences than those in the study who said they were not religious.
The study also showed that it did not seem to matter whether the religious individuals went to worship services or not. Just the fact that they identified as religious or spiritual was enough. In 2013, the same researchers measured the brain cortex of several religious and non-religious individuals in an MRI. The study showed that those who said they were spiritual or meditated regularly had thicker cortexes than their non-spiritual counterparts.
Previous studies have indicated a thicker cortex could play a role in preventing depression while individuals with a thinner cortex could be more subject to depression. The cortex is the area of the brain that has the potential to make a person more resilient and give them the ability to more easily resist trauma. Some experts say that the studies behind the Green Journal article are inconclusive due to the small sample size of study participants. However, the results make can beg the question is there more to the mind-body connection than was once thought.
It could be a case of which came first: the chicken or the egg. Do spirituality and meditation thicken the brain’s cortex, or are individuals with thicker cortexes more drawn to engage in spiritual practices? More study is needed before we can make definitive conclusions on the effect of spirituality on mood. With seemingly more and more experts interested in the subject of religion and mental health, it is likely that those studies are immanent.
- Cathy Poley
Depending on your perspective - religious or non-religious - a belief in a higher being comes from the dawn of time. For the purposes of this discussion, religious will be defined as those people with a belief in a power higher and greater than human beings or human understanding.
Throughout recorded history there are apparantly miraculous recoveries from every form of illness. Physical, mental, and emotional diseases or illnesses have all been healed in one form or another. The Biblical belief of Christians was often that diseases were caused by the infestation or indwelling of a demonic being, physical or spiritual, into a human being. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter 8, Jesus cast demons from two men into a herd of pigs in order to ease their suffering. If a person believes in demonic spirits and that they can cause illness in various forms, then why would they not also believe that a relationship with a higher power could or would offer a healing from the illness?
The evidence does exist to support the theory that a belief and/or faith in a higher power provides a comfort and assurance that healing is possible. Obviously, there are immeasurable examples of people who profess a belief in a higher power that have not been healed. However, the comfort, that belief and/or faith provides, can in the very least make the hurting of life more bearable mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Dean, E. (2014, January 26). Brains, Spirituality, and Depression. Psychology Today.