Prayer seems to be more effective easing anxiety for those who believe in a loving God. (Creative Commons photo by Leland Francisco)
Prayer seems to be more effective easing anxiety for those who believe in a loving God. (Creative Commons photo by Leland Francisco)

Sociologist: Concept of God impacts power of prayer, anxiety-related disorders

A Baylor University sociologist finds that prayer is more effective in easing anxiety when the pray-er believes in a loving, dependable God.

By Terry Goodrich

Prayer seems to be more effective at combating psychological challenges for some than for others, a Baylor University sociologist has found.

The type of attachment a praying individual feels toward God seems to matter most in easing symptoms of anxiety-related disorders, researcher Matt Bradshaw discovered.

According to his study, people who prayed to a loving and supportive God whom they thought would be there to comfort and protect them in times of need were less likely to show symptoms of anxiety-related disorders — irrational worry, fear, self-consciousness, dread in social situations and obsessive-compulsive behavior — than those who prayed but did not expect God to comfort or protect them.

An article about the research —“Prayer, Attachment to God and Symptoms of Anxiety-Related Disorders among U.S. Adults” — appears in the journal Sociology of Religion and was funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Co-researchers were Christopher Ellison from the University of Texas at San Antonio; Kevin J. Flannelly, senior researcher at the Center for Psychosocial Research in Massapequa, N.Y.; and Kathleen C. Galek, research associate with the HealthCare Chaplaincy in New York City.

While previous research has shown people who have a secure attachment to God are more satisfied with life and less depressed and lonely, little attention has been paid to psychiatric symptoms, said Bradshaw, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor.

Prayer works ... if you believe God is there

“For many individuals, God is a major source of comfort and strength that makes the world seem less threatening and dangerous. Through prayer, individuals seek to develop an intimate relationship with God,” Bradshaw said.

“In this context, prayer appears to confer emotional comfort, which results in fewer symptoms of anxiety-related disorders,” he said.

matt bradshaw BaylorHowever, those with avoidant or insecure attachments to God tend more to doubt the reliability or willingness of God to help them.

“For these individuals, prayer may feel like an unsuccessful attempt to cultivate and maintain an intimate relationship with God,” Bradshaw said. “Rejected, unanswered or otherwise unsuccessful experiences of prayer may be disturbing and debilitating — and may, therefore, lead to more frequent and severe symptoms of anxiety-related disorders.”

Researchers analyzed data from 1,714 individuals who participated in the most recent wave of the Baylor Religion Survey, completed in November 2010 by the Gallup Organization and analyzed by sociology researchers at Baylor. The study focused on general anxiety, social anxiety, obsession and compulsion.

View of God helps shape mental health

Teachings of Christianity and some other faiths use the parent-child imagery to depict the relationship between God and an individual, with one researcher describing God as “the ultimate attachment figure.” The Baylor study findings are consistent with a growing body of research indicating a person’s perceived relationship with God can play an important role in shaping mental health.

In theory, people who pray regularly may be inclined to live out their religion more faithfully, which may lead to less stress, such as marriage and family conflicts, researchers wrote. People who pray often may have more of a sense of purpose in life or have more supportive personal relations. And many people use prayer as a coping strategy.

When it comes to personal prayer outside religious organizations, however, findings by previous researchers have been inconsistent — and puzzling. Some studies indicate frequent praying has positive effects on mental health. Others report no effect — or even that people who pray more often have poorer mental health than those who pray less frequently.

“At the present, we don’t know exactly why the findings have been so inconsistent,” Bradshaw said. “Prayer is complex.”

Possible explanations

He offers possible explanations for varying findings:

• Individual expectations. Some scholars suggest that “if you expect prayer to matter, it just might,” Bradshaw said. In several studies of older adults, people who believe only God knows when and how to respond to prayer fare well when it comes to mental health; those who think their prayers are not being answered do not.

• Style of prayer. In general, meditative and colloquial prayers have been linked with desirable outcomes, including emotional well-being, while ritualistic prayer actually has been associated with poor mental health outcomes. Meditative prayer is concerned with closeness and intimacy during reflection and communication with a loving, supportive God; colloquial prayer takes that a step further by also asking for help, such as guidance in decision-making, blessings for the world or less widespread suffering.

“These requests tend to be broad, however, and are aimed at making the world a better place instead of personal enrichment,” Bradshaw said.

• Perceived characteristics of God — such as loving, remote or judgmental — affect the relationship between prayer and mental health. “Our previous work has found that prayer is associated with desirable mental health outcomes among individuals who believe that they are praying to a God who is close as opposed to remote, and the results from the current study are largely consistent with this finding,” Bradshaw said.

• Differences in study design and sampling. “These are all important considerations, but a comprehensive understanding of the connection between prayer and mental health remains elusive,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do in this area.”