For centuries, experts in theology, science and thought have tried to understand how religion affects people. Not just mentally, but physically as well. Also, the world seems to have accepted that religion and spirituality are important factors.

And that they give meaning to our behaviours, values and experiences as human beings.

Therefore, there is good reason to believe that religion and health are positively intertwined. For instance, the Mayo Clinic research team surmised that many studies have shown that religious involvement are linked to better health outcomes. Some of them include greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life even during terminal illness. There’s also less anxiety, depression, and suicide. Research has shown that addressing the spiritual needs of the patient may enhance recovery from illness.

Religious centres built many of the first hospitals

There are several facts linking religious behaviours and health today. In fact, religious organizations built many of the first hospitals, and clergy were often practicing physicians and medical providers. This was true both in the Middle East and in the American colonies, and it is still true today. In Nigeria, many old religious centres, and indeed the new ones own hospitals. There they cater to both the mental and physical health of their adherents.

In Nigeria, some catholic churches like St. Anthony and St. Nicholas churches own hospitals. Some other pentecostal churches like the Omega Fire Ministries, Winners Chapel and The Redeemed Christian Church of God all own state of the art hospitals.

What science says

A number of studies have found that devout people have fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. They also have a better ability to cope with stress. Certain religious practices may even change the brain in a way that boosts mental health, studies suggest.

In one well-conducted study, researchers assessed almost 3,000 women who regularly attended church services. For health status, social support and habits. When they were followed up 28 years later, their mortality over that period was found to be more than a third less than the general population.

An inverse relationship exists between religious involvement and suicidal behaviour in 84 per cent of 68 studies. That is, those with religious belief and practice are less likely to kill themselves. This association also applies to attempted suicide; believers are less likely to take overdose or use other methods of self-harm.”

When looking at the overall effects of religion on whole populations, there is substantial evidence that religion is highly beneficial for all areas of health, and especially mental health.

Religion and the brain

Studies of religious people’s brains may  provide an explanation for the link between religion and mental-health benefits. These studies suggest that meditation, and meditative prayers activate areas of the brain involved in regulating emotional responses, including the frontal lobes.

A 2010 study that included brain scans of Tibetan Buddhists and Franciscan nuns found that they had more activity in frontal-lobe areas.

Strengthening these areas of the brain may help people be more calm. Also they will be less reactionary, and better able to deal with stress. However, these studies can’t say that prayer changed the brain. It’s possible that these differences existed before the meditators took up their prayer practice.

It’s also possible that the beliefs and teachings of a religion, may become integrated into the way the brain works. The more we use certain neural connections in the brain, the stronger they become. So if a religion advocates compassion, the neural circuits involved in thinking about compassion become stronger.

So you keep coming back to these positive feelings and emotions, and that reduces stress, anxiety, and can lead to reduced stress hormones.

Some religions also advocate that members stay away from high-risk health behaviors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol or overindulging in food. Steering away from these unhealthy behaviors could also be beneficial for brain function, he said.

Downsides

However, religion doesn’t always have a positive impact on mental health. Its impact depends on a person’s beliefs, and whether the larger community accepts religion, experts say.

For example, if a religion advocates hate of nonbelievers, these negative beliefs will also become part of the way the brain works. In theory, this would turn on areas of the brain involved in thinking about hate, and could increase stress and stimulate the release of stress hormones.

In addition, if some people believe that a health condition is a punishment from God, they may be less likely to seek treatment. Also, when people believe that God has abandoned them, or when they question God’s love for them, they tend to experience greater emotional distress, and even face an increased risk of an earlier death.

Exactly why some people take a positive view of religion while others take a negative one is not known, and more studies should be conducted to examine this topic.

This article was first published on AfricaParent.com



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