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Science & Technology | February 26, 2013

Proving prayer works

Health

Researchers verify links between spiritual and physical well-being

©iStockPhoto.com/Peter Brutsch

The woman laying in the hospital bed grimaced in pain. The doctors could give her medication to ease the sharp stabs in her stomach, but they could do nothing about the emotional agony her cancer diagnosis caused.

Jean Kristeller, a mental and physical health researcher, knew the woman's reaction to her diagnosis could mean the difference between life and death. Would she sink into depression, cursing the hardship and uncertainty she faced? Or would she embrace her condition with faith, clinging tenaciously to the hope she could get better?

In the middle of the chaotic emergency room, surrounded by beeping machinery, loud voices and rushing bodies, the woman quietly began to pray.

That simple act of faith told Kristeller as much about the woman's prognosis as the tests the doctors eventually would run. After years of working with recently diagnosed cancer patients, Kristeller has discovered a sense of spiritual well-being, support from a religious community and a sense of meaning offer the best protection against depression in traumatic situations.

Kristeller,a mental and physical health researcher at Indiana State University, and Patrick Bennet, a psychology professor, are at the forefront of a new trend in psychology research, studying the link between religion and mental and physical health. Their conclusions, and those of other researchers around the world, confirm a truth Christians have known for 2,000 years-faith gives life on earth a meaning that makes hardships easier to endure.

In her work with cancer patients, Kristeller discovered a common denominator among those who did well during months of chemotherapy treatments that sapped their strength and left them violently ill. A willingness to rely on God and a community of believers for help made their treatment bearable.

Conversely, patients who grew up in church and claimed to have a great deal of faith but refused "to burden others" with their illness were much more likely to suffer from depression as they attempted to fight the disease on their own.

"They didn't seem to be drawing on their religious background," Kristeller said.

Months after Kristeller and other researches met the woman with stomach cancer in the emergency room, they spoke with her again. They found her "doing much better" because she claimed to have heard "a voice telling her to let God help her," Kristeller said. The woman also learned to accept help from members of her church, and compared to the average patient, she was enduring her diagnosis and treatments very well, Kristeller said.

Bennet's research tracked two different types of journal-writing from people in traumatic situations: daily journals written by non-religious people and prayer journals written by those who claimed faith in God. One of the biggest differences between the groups was how quickly study participants found meaning in their suffering. Non-religious people often started out with a 'why me' attitude, while believers almost immediately found a sense of meaning in their "dialogue with God."

"Meaning is such a powerful thing," Bennet said. When a terminal illness or other traumatic situation forces a person to confront their mortality, meaning provides a foundation to stand on and a framework to put problems in perspective.

"I do think with prayer, the more meaning you can take from something, the better … prayer has the potential to be a powerful coping mechanism," he said. "People perceive it as powerful and portable."

Since its birth, the field of psychology has largely ignored or overlooked intangible spiritual practices like prayer and meditation. Researchers are now trying to bridge the gap between spirituality and science, and Christians can count on more studies "confirming" truths they've taken on faith for centuries.