Is religion good for your mental health?

I remember sitting on my bed one evening. I’m 11, looking up at the stars: ashamed, alone, unable to talk to anyone about it. You see, I haven’t been able to navigate entering secondary school with new social groups, teacher pressures, my emerging sexuality and my religious demands and doubts. I pray, desperate: ‘I wish I was never born into this game of heaven and hell.’

I remember another time. I’m 21. I’ve graduated from university but can’t get a job because of the financial crisis - and I don’t really know what I want to do anyway. But me and my wife need me to have some income to support us as she trains. I go for a walk - at night again, looking up at the stars, and meditate on Jesus’ famous words about worry (Matthew 6). As I meditate and pray, I feel a peace: of being known, of being OK. I have no answers or certainties, but I sense God is somehow lovingly moving in our circumstances. I keep applying and get a job that sees us through.

Religion, which personally has pervaded my whole life from a young age, is both a well to fall into, and get trapped in, and a well to draw life-giving water from. It has been the place of my deepest mental anguish and comfort. Religion has been both good and bad for my mental health.

But why is this? And what does this mean for me, a religious person, who also cares about my (and my family’s) mental health?

1. Clarifying terms.

'Religion' and 'mental health' are vague. So, attempting to answer this question can get you bogged down very quickly. Let’s try to point to what I mean (without feeling the need for exactness).

By religion, I mean some personal connection with a spiritual tradition that is commonly identified as a religion. The connection might be: more social or private; about beliefs, practices, morality or values; historical or current; tenuous, partial or ‘all-in’. I think describing oneself as religious can incorporate all of this. I think, too, that we have a sense how much this applies to us.

By mental health, I’m going with WHO:

‘a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.’

Mental health: strengthening our response

Notably, mental health is distinct from (although related to) a mental disorder. We could say they are on separate axes so you could be mentally health or unhealthy with no disorder and equally, mentally healthy or unhealthy with a disorder.

Because there is a lot to cover in this definition by WHO, and because researchers have focussed on this aspect, I’ll focus on whether religion is good for your capacity to cope with the normal stresses of life. (Though, I suspect similar principles would apply in the other areas of mental health).

This leads to a final clarification: what do you mean the ability to cope? I find a helpful way of thinking about coping is to imagine a jar. Our jar gets filled up with the normal stresses of life. For some of us, our jar is large: we can fit in a lot of stresses before we stop coping. For others, our jar is small. Biological and early experiences probably determine the size of our jars - although new relationships can impact our capacity. Equally, for some of us, there is already a lot in our jar already. We may have to live managing lots of stress all the time: financial, relational, family, illness, cultural, intercultural etc. For others, there isn’t such a constant level of stress.

In this model, when we think about whether something if good or bad for coping with stress, we are talking about how much it adds to stuff getting into the jar, stops stuff getting into the jar, takes out stuff in the jar, makes stuff in the jar bigger or smaller, or how much it build up the size of the jar.

2. Religion as good for our mental health

Religiousness has been linked with:

  • stopping too much getting into the jar with rules and regulations that help avoid stressful situations (Koenig, 2017). E.g. crime, risky sexual behaviour, divorce or drugs. Similarly, religiousness has been positively linked with physical health.

  • raising the sides of our jar through practices and values linked with positive emotions and support networks (Koenig, 2017). E.g. love, forgiveness, compassion, altruism, community, gratefulness, mindfulness and diet.

  • positive coping strategies that mean the stuff in our jars takes us less space or gets taken out. Koenig, (2017) lists more positive cognitive appraisals that religion can offer: instead of feeling out of control, prayer can give a sense of God being in control; instead of despair, religion can provide hope; instead of a loss of meaning, religion can normalise loss, give existential answers and offer a sense of purpose. Similarly, Pargament et al (2007) describes how religiousness can decrease avoidant and defensive behaviours, i.e. instead of responding as passive, helpless victims, religion can encourage active coping strategies.

Pargament et al (2007) go further in linking positive religious coping activities with what might be called a 'healthy' personal religion: they reflect a secure relationship with God; a belief that there is greater meaning to be found; a sense of spiritual connectedness to others; and an internalised, intrinsically motivated religion that is integrated into the individual's life.

3. Religion as bad for our mental health

Paragament et al (2007) also links negative religious coping activities with what we might call an 'unhealthy' personal religion: they reflect a tenuous relationship with God and the world; an ominous view of the world; a religious struggle to ever find significance in life; an imposed, unexamined religion. I can see a lot of this in my personal religion at 11.

Negative religious coping strategies could be cognitive appraisals such as feeling abandoned by God, questioning God’s love and care, feeling the devil is at work. Such religious struggles can enlarge the stresses we have in our jar and add to them, not simply as existential struggles in themselves but as they are also linked with mental disorders and physical illness.

But life struggles - and religious struggles - have always been a big part of religious traditions. It is normalised. There are role models. There are concepts for how it can lead to deeper growth, like 'providence' and ‘the dark night of the soul.’ Paragement et al (2007) discuss how these religious struggles can be a means of growth or, alternatively, cause greater harm. They hypothesise two factors influencing the impact of such religious struggles:

  1. whether the person can find a way to resolve the religious struggles. For me, from 11-18 years old, I was in a perpetual religious struggle. Thankfully, in going to university and studying philosophy, I started to find resolutions. This experience, I believe, enlarged me as a person. But I doubt there would be much of me left if the struggle had continued.

  2. how much the religious community accepts or rejects such struggles. Can they tolerate doubt or will it mean alienation? Do I have to hide my life or religious struggles to remain a part of the community, but thus end up feeling isolated and alone? This forces us to appreciate how much the personal religion is constrained by the community we are a part of.

4. So what?

It strikes me that the research suggests some practical questions we can ask ourselves if we are religious and also struggle with (or simply care about) mental health:

1. Is my religious community able to tolerate life struggles? What about religious struggles?

Some are not. Some seem all about prosperity, contributing or certainty. Some are OK with some struggles but not others. Some are explicitly comfortable with it but implicitly devalue, dismiss or demonise struggling. Some just love you however you come.

At the same time, a sense of spiritual connectedness with others is part of a healthy personal religion. So, the answer to this may indicate that we need to leave our community, take a step back from it, or test the waters of it to see if someone can handle our struggles; equally it may mean we try a different religious community or seek a friend, minister (or counsellor) who can meet and welcome us at this level.

2. Is my religion central to my life or just a part of it, and how helpful is this being to me?

The centrality of religion to the person is ‘double-edged’ (Pargament et al, 2007): it is part of a healthy integration and internalisation or religion; it also means that we reap more of the costs of religious involvement.

Depending on where we are, we might want to consider taking a step back from religious involvement as it makes our jars too small and our stresses too big. Alternatively, we might want to go deeper into our religious tradition or community in order to reap its benefits. I suspect the right answer to this is different for different people at different times.

3. Is my view of God healthy or unhealthy?

Do I have a sense of a secure or tenuous relationship with God? Do I feel he cares and loves me, or do I feel he is displeased, abandoning or rejecting of me? Do I have a sense of religious meaning or meaninglessness? The answers to these questions may highlight where we are susceptible to really struggle when life hits us with stress. It may indicate that we could do with talking to someone (a minister, a friend, a spiritually-sensitive counsellor) to work through our feelings around God and meaning.

4. Am I able to be flexible?

As with all things, the answer to the title of this blog is not either/or. Religion isn’t good or bad, helpful or unhelpful to our mental health. It is both/and. Realising this, accepting this, helps us to flexibly navigate religion in our lives so that it nourishes more than empties and supports more than burdens.

When our religion gets inflexible - e.g. when it insists it is always good and we should just be more religious to 'overcome' our mental health - and, equally, when our mental health gurus get inflexible - e.g. insisting in one way or another that religion cannot be helpful and we would be better without it - that's when real harm can be done. That's when all that is good can get missed, distorted or devalued. That's when you start to lose out.

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