Religious belief keeps anxiety at bay

  • March 12, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Maybe the bus ads should read, “There probably is a God, so stop worrying and get on with your life.”

A team of Toronto scientists has found that believers perform better in certain mental tasks because religious people are less likely to experience anxiety when they make a mistake. People who believe in God worry less.

“We suggest that religious conviction buffers against anxiety by providing relief from the experience of uncertainty and error, and in so doing, strengthening convictions and narrowing attention away from inconsistencies,” wrote psychology professor Michael Inzlicht and his team of researchers from the University of Toronto and York University in an article called “Neural Markers of Religious Conviction” published in Psychological Science on March 4.
Since the study received media play in early March, Inzlicht has run into two popular responses — religious people who are pleased that the study shows religion is good for you, and non-religious who think the study shows how religious people fail to worry when they should.

“It’s kind of a litmus test,” Inzlicht told The Catholic Register. “For atheists out there, it’s support for (their belief) religious people don’t use their brains... Religious folks say, ‘Oh, lowers anxiety — that’s great.’ ”

The bus ad presumption that believers are naturally fearful and worried is a rather recent phenomenon, said Sam Mikail, the clinical director of the Southdown Institute.

“That’s popularization. That’s not science,” said Mikail. “There have certainly been times throughout history when exactly the opposite popularization was argued, that a sense of spirituality is associated with a sense of peace.”

Mikail also notes that the Toronto study of anxiety and religion is just one of a long line of studies that show a correlation between religious belief and good psychological and physical health. Greater longevity, lower rates of heart disease and cancers and decreased loneliness are all associated in scientific studies with either belief in God or regular religious practice.

But the general correlation doesn’t mean that every religious person passes through life cool as a cucumber. There are very anxious religious people, some of whom find treatment at Southdown , a church-sponsored treatment facility that helps priests, nuns and religious brothers with problems running from addictions to depression and compulsive disorders.

For most religious people, how they relate to God determines their level of anxiety, said Mikail.

“Whether people are anxious or not is not so much a function of your belief or spirituality, but what is your attachment style?” said Mikail.

“Attachment style” is psychological language for how people form relationships. That way of forming and maintaining relationships includes one’s relationship with God, said Mikail.

Mikail claims about 60 per cent of the population has a secure attachment style leading to stable and trusting relationships. The minority with insecure attachment styles have trouble trusting in relationships.

“That insecurity is going to express itself, whether it’s in a relationship with God or it’s in a relationship with another human being, or whether it’s in a relationship with your wife or husband or best friend,” Mikail said.

A bad attachment style can be fixed, though it’s not easy, said the psychologist.

“Changing it is not easy, and it’s not instantaneous. It takes quite some time, but that’s what clinical science does,” said Mikail.

Prayer also works, especially when aided by spiritual direction.

“Spiritual direction can be quite helpful if you have a spiritual director who recognizes that someone tends to be a particularly anxious individual,” he said.

Inzlicht believes his study applies more generally than just drawing a line between believers and non-believers.

“I don’t think this study is specific to religion,” he said. “I think it’s actually specific to meaning systems we create in our world. Religion is one meaning system. It’s a system that kind of provides structure, helps us navigate our social world, provides guidelines for what to do and when to do it. But there are other systems.”

For some it’s politics. For others it’s much more personal, he said.

“One’s relationship with one’s spouse, if that’s the axis around which your world revolves — which I think for many people that’s the case — that also provides meaning as well,” Inzlicht said. “And for many people that provides the same kind of palliative as religion does.”

Inzlicht and his colleagues measured brain activity, looking for signs of anxiety in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain, while the subjects — wired to an EEG machine — looked at coloured cards that spelled out the names of colours. The test subjects would have to look at the word “red” printed in blue and name the colour of the letters. The believers who participated in the test represented most of the faiths present among University of Toronto students — 39 per cent Christian, 21 per cent Muslim, 14 per cent Hindu, 11 per cent Buddhist and 15 per cent other.

The study makes no distinction among the believers.

“Whether there is a God or not is irrelevant to this study,” said Inzlicht. “Believing is what matters.”

Should people take up religion for the benefits of lower anxiety, less stress, fewer heart attacks, longer life and better scores on the Stroop test?

Inzlicht calls that kind of thinking “silly.”

“I don’t think you can make yourself believe something if intellectually it just doesn’t jive with you,” he said.

People believe if their experience tells them it makes sense, he said.

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