If you are someone who practices a religious faith, you probably know that it can carry you through life’s good times and bad. Most of us have at least a vague sense that caring for our spiritual health will benefit our mental health as well.
But did you know that there is good evidence that this is true? Yes, it’s not just a hunch: Making your religious faith a regular practice brings solid benefits to your brain. Here are just two interesting articles on this topic.
One was published in Scientific American shortly after the pandemic. Across the board, American mental health took a nosedive during the COVID lock-downs, and most of America came out the other side of those lock-downs in worse shape than ever. The only exception was those who attended regular religious services:
In the past year, American mental health sank to the lowest point in history: Incidence of mental disorders increased by 50 percent, compared with before the pandemic, alcohol and other substance abuse surged, and young adults were more than twice as likely to seriously consider suicide than they were in 2018.
Yet the only group to see improvements in mental health during the past year were those who attended religious services at least weekly (virtually or in-person): 46 percent report “excellent” mental health today versus 42 percent one year ago. As former congressional representative Patrick J. Kennedy and journalist Stephen Fried wrote in their book A Common Struggle, the two most underappreciated treatments for mental disorders are “love and faith.”
The second interesting article references a study published in JAMA Psychiatry that found that those who engaged in a regular religious practice actually had a thicker cortex in certain parts of the brain. This suggests that engaging in a religious practice over time will strengthen your brain, physically making it more resilient!
How has spirituality fallen so far off our collective radar? “I think because 40 years ago, in the positive efforts and the good attempt to be inclusive, we as a society took religion out of the public square, and with it went the spiritual baby with the bathwater,” says Lisa Jane Miller, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and education and the founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City, and the author of The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life.
Miller and a group of researchers have scientifically examined the benefits of cultivating one’s spiritual side, referencing a 25-year-long rigorously peer-reviewed study with findings that show how spirituality is “foundational” to recovery, moving through depression, moving through trauma with post-traumatic spiritual growth, and even potentially girding against subsequent depression. One MRI study her team conducted, published in JAMA Psychiatry and referenced in her book, revealed that individuals at higher risk for depressive illness who prioritized their spiritual lives actually had a thicker cortex in certain parts of the brain, and might be more resilient to the development of a major depressive illness.
We live in a culture that likes to compartmentalize spiritual health from the mental. But research shows that strengthening one area brings benefits to all. In particular, a regular spiritual practice will strengthen the mind as well, and can even have measurable benefits to the brain! How awesome is that!
This should be encouraging to those considering engaging in a regular religious practice. And for those of us who do have a regular weekly and daily practice of some kind, we should be encouraged to keep it up—and even “kick it up a notch” (to use a Emeril phrase) if it’s been pretty much at the same level for a year or more.