Can Faith in God Help Alleviate Depression?

Faith in God

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study looking at the relationship between faith and effectiveness of treatment for depression found that those whose belief in God was stronger, regardless of the god or religious affiliation (including non-affiliation), were twice as likely to respond well to the treatment and experiencing better outcomes
  • Recent research suggests that certain types of depressive thinking can “go viral,” spreading to others living in close proximity. While “hopelessness” was not contagious, “ruminating” was
  • Along with a slowly increasing understanding of the role of spiritual faith can have in your physical and mental health, energy psychology is also slowly but surely gaining greater acceptance
  • In one study of 100 veterans with severe PTSD, after just six one-hour EFT sessions, 90 percent of the veterans had such a reduction in symptoms that they no longer met the clinical criteria for PTSD

By Dr. Mercola

Can faith in a higher power help you overcome mental illness, the most common of which is depression? To find out, researchers at McLean hospital, a psychiatric institution affiliated with Harvard Medical School, asked 159 patients with prominent symptoms of depression how strongly they believed in a god.1

They also asked how credible the patients thought their treatment was, and how effective they believed it would be in relieving their symptoms. The patients' symptoms were assessed when admitted, and again upon release from the program.

Of the participants, 71 percent reported believing in a god or a higher power to some extent. Those whose belief in a god was stronger, regardless of the god or religious affiliation (including non-affiliation), were twice as likely to respond well to the treatment and experiencing better outcomes, such as:

  • Lessening of depression
  • Reductions in self-harm
  • Increases in psychological well-being (peace of mind, ability to have fun, general satisfaction)

As reported by The Atlantic:2

"The researchers point out that people who believed in a god, or were affiliated with a religion, were also more likely to believe their psychiatric treatment was credible and to expect positive results.

It may be, they write, that 'the tendency to have faith in conventional social constructs' can be generalized both to religion and the medical establishment. Since other studies have shown that faith in a given treatment is an important predictor of its effectiveness, that could help explain the association with improved outcomes found here."

The Stigma of Mental Illness Within the Church

The recent suicide of 27-year-old Matthew Warren,3 youngest son of Pastor Rick Warren, founder of the mega-church Saddleback Valley Community Church in California, brought mental illness back into view for many within the confines of religion.

NPR4 recently featured an interview with journalist and Evangelical Christian Christine Scheller on the sometimes complicated relationship between faith and mental illness. Scheller also lost her son to suicide five years ago. (For a transcript of this program, please see the original source page.)5

This is a Flash-based media clip and may not play on mobile devices.

While the stigma of mental illness does not cling to all denominations, some churches can tend to marginalize mental health problems and view them as issues that are best approached by reading the bible or praying.

In Scheller's experience, the anti-psychiatry rhetoric used in some churches can delay much-needed treatment. When it became clear that Scheller's younger son also suffered with depression, she decided to ignore the advice of the church, opting instead to seek professional help for her son.

"[S]tigma about mental illness is not unique to the evangelical community. We have our own particular ways in which it's stigmatized, but it's a pervasive problem," she says.

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Depressive Thinking Can Go Viral

In related research published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, researchers suggest that certain types of depressive thinking can "go viral," spreading to others living in close proximity. As reported in Time Magazine:6

"Although many people see depression as a chemical imbalance in the brain, scientists say social context and the way you see yourself and the world can be critical in causing and sustaining the illness... 'Thinking styles are a really important factor in risk for depression,' says the study's lead author Gerald Haeffel, associate professor of clinical psychology at Notre Dame University. 'How one thinks about life stress and negative moods is one of the best predictors that we have of future depression.'"

The two thinking styles explored in the study were:

  • Rumination; constant brooding or worrying about what might go wrong
  • Hopelessness

Both of these thinking styles have previously been linked to depression. But whereas the first places your focus on your negative mood, the other reflects on your lack of self worth and the consequences of an event. Says lead researcher Haeffel:

"For example, a person who feels hopeless might lose a job and see it as a personal failure and a sign that he will never be employable again. A more resilient person might blame the economy or see the situation as an opportunity to get a better position."

The latter, hopelessness, was not found to be contagious, but rumination was. A suggested reason for this is because hopelessness centers around your own thoughts and deeply embedded beliefs about yourself, and so therefore may be less likely to have a major influence on the way others think about themselves and their lives. Ruminating and constant brooding, however, which focuses on all the bad things that might happen and sees the worst in every situation, is a mode that is more easily spread and mirrored by others.

"Interestingly, depression symptoms themselves were not contagious: simply having a roommate with symptoms of the disorder did not increase risk of developing the mental illness. But those who picked up a ruminative style of thinking from their roommates during the first three months of school had more than double the number of depressive symptoms of those who either weren't exposed to this perspective or didn't adopt the rumination three months later. And the risk was magnified if they experienced high levels of stress," Time reports.

Positive Thinking Is Contagious Too!

Fortunately, the study also found that healthier modes of thinking were equally contagious, with the capacity to make a roommate adopt a more optimistic outlook as well. More than likely, you didn't need a study to take notice of this. Most people will at some point or another have encountered someone in their life that either made you feel more positive or negative, simply by spending time with them.

A question they could not answer, however, was what the determining factor was that decided which roommate would adopt a thinking style more closely mirroring that of the other. Why are some people's thinking styles more likely to dominate, rather than be influenced?

"Such information could enhance the current findings and contribute to new ways of treating and preventing depression," Time writes. "The results suggest that depressive thinking styles can still be influenced during young adulthood — so this risk factor can be minimized even if it has already developed during high school or earlier. Targeting ruminative thinking might also enhance therapy.

"The therapist could assess if people in the patient's life are modeling and providing adaptive cognitive feedback about stress and negative life events," says Haeffel. "The therapist could then provide those with negative thinking styles with information about the contagion effect along with training that would help them identify negative thought patterns and provide examples of more adaptive ways of thinking."

The Slow Opening Up to 'Spiritual Science'

In 1993, only three of the United States' 125 medical schools offered any sort of course work exploring the area of spirituality and medicine. Today, over 90 of these medical schools have formal courses where they explore randomized controlled studies and the effects of spiritual practices on longevity and health outcomes—a sure sign that what was once considered taboo is beginning to receive the discussion and serious investigation it deserves. Dr. Larry Dossey has written 11 books primarily focused on consciousness, spirituality, and the impact of spirituality on your health, including the book Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine.

"I think we're opening up," Dossey said when I interviewed him, three years ago. "I'm sure you remember, about 40 years ago when meditation burst upon the scene in medicine, it was put down. It was called California Woo woo. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with it. But now nobody raises an eye about meditation and yoga, even in medicine. We're in the same place with spirituality that we were with meditation about 20 years ago. People know you can't ignore it. The correlation between spiritual practice and health outcomes is just too strong.

For example, the data shows that people who follow some sort of spiritual path in their life live on average seven to 13 years longer than people who do not follow a spiritual practice... We have a huge spectrum of data that shows, I think compellingly, that your thoughts really matter when it comes to getting well."

Most ancient cultures knew this, and there are few lines dividing spirituality; the mind, and medicine in these cultures. Ironically, modern science now allows us to rediscover these ancient truths, which fell by the wayside with the advent of medical science and its narrow focus on individual parts as opposed to investigating the connections within the whole. Going back to where we started, David Rosmarin, the lead researcher of the featured study in which those with a stronger faith in God experienced far better treatment outcomes for their depression, said:

"Given the prevalence of religious belief in the United States -- more than 90 percent of the population -- these findings are important in that they highlight the clinical implications of spiritual life. I hope that this work will lead to larger studies and increased funding in order to help as many people as possible."

The Rise of Energy Psychology

Many people avoid energy psychology as they believe it is an alternative form of New Age spirituality, yet nothing could be further from the truth. It is merely an advanced tool that can effectively address some of the psychological short circuiting that occurs in emotional illnesses. It is not any competition at all with any religion but merely an effective resource you can use with whatever spiritual belief you have.

My favorite technique for this is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is the largest and most popular version of energy psychology.

EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineering graduate specializing in healing and self-improvement. It's akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.7 By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional "scarring" and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors.

While the following video will teach you how to do EFT, it is VERY important to realize that self-treatment for serious mental health issues is NOT recommended. For serious or complex issues, you need someone to guide you through the process as there is an incredible art to this process and it typically takes years of training to develop the skill to tap on deep-seated, significant issues.

Research Backs the Use of EFT for Depression

I have been a fan of energy psychology for many years, having witnessed its effectiveness in my medical practice and in my own personal life. However, studies have been few and far between as science has been trying to "catch up" with clinical experience. That has finally started to change. Several studies have been published in the last few years, showing just how safe and effective EFT really is.

For example, the following three studies show remarkable progress in a very short amount of time for people with a history of trauma:

  1. A 2009 study8 of 16 institutionalized adolescent boys with histories of physical or psychological abuse showed substantially decreased intensity of traumatic memories after just ONE session of EFT.
  2. An EFT study9 involving 30 moderately to severely depressed college students was conducted. The depressed students were given four 90-minute EFT sessions. Students who received EFT showed significantly less depression than the control group when evaluated three weeks later.
  3. In a study of 100 veterans with severe PTSD10 (Iraq Vets Stress Project),11 after just six one-hour EFT sessions, 90 percent of the veterans had such a reduction in symptoms that they no longer met the clinical criteria for PTSD; 60 percent no longer met PTSD criteria after only three EFT sessions. At the three-month follow-up, the gains remained stable, suggesting lasting and potentially permanent resolution of the problem.
  4. [The Iraq Stress Project is still recruiting veteran volunteers. If you are a veteran and interested in participating, you can get more information here.]

Other Lifestyle Changes to Consider for Depression

I strongly believe that energy psychology is one of the most powerful tools for resolving emotional issues, and I think strengthening your faith can be a very important aspect of mental and emotional health as well. The effectiveness of any energy psychology technique will be significantly improved if you combine it with the following:

  • Dramatically decreasing your consumption of sugar (particularly fructose), grains, and processed foods. (In addition to being high in sugar and grains, processed foods also contain a variety of additives that can affect your brain function and mental state, especially artificial sweeteners.)
  • Getting adequate vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency can contribute to depression and affects one in four people.
  • Optimizing your vitamin D levels, ideally through regular sun exposure. Vitamin D is very important for your mood. One study found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels.
  • Getting plenty of animal-based omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats are crucial for good brain function and mental health,12 and most people don't get enough from diet alone. So make sure you take a high-quality omega-3 fat, such as krill oil.
  • Evaluating your salt intake. Sodium deficiency actually creates symptoms that are very much like those of depression. Make sure you do NOT use processed salt (regular table salt), however. You'll want to use an all natural, unprocessed salt like Himalayan salt, which contains more than 80 different micronutrients.
  • Getting adequate daily exercise. Exercise is one of the best-kept secrets to preventing depression.