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Does God Make You Worry Less?

Belief in a benevolent God is linked to less worry, a new study finds
Belief in a benevolent God is linked to less worry, a new study finds

Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends — Woody Allen

That's my general take on religion, just to put it out there. But I have to say, during health crises, my cynicism dips and I have been known not to pray to God exactly, but to spew forth pleading messages to what I hope is a compassionate universe. ("Please, please let my daughter's headache be a headache, not a brain tumor," for instance.)

But who cares what I think. According to surveys, something like 92% of Americans believe in God or a higher power, and I have seen religion serve others as an amazing buffer against the harsh strikes of serious illness, from cancer to deadly viruses.

Apparently, that attitude can lead to less stress and a sturdier mind-set, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard-affiliated Mclean Hospital in Belmont. They found that people who believe in a benevolent God (presumably not Woody Allen's version) worry less and are "more tolerant of life's uncertainties than those who believe in an indifferent or punishing God." (The study didn't address worry and stress among non-believers.)

David Rosmarin, PhD, an assistant in psychology at McLean and lead author of the study said the research suggests that mental health professionals should take patients' spirituality more seriously and incorporate it more fully into treatment. "Religion and spirituality play an important role in many people's lives and we don't address it," Rosmarin said. "You want to ask people about their family and their symptoms, of course. But often, spirituality isn't mentioned. A humanistic approach to health might actually be asking people something relevant to them."

Here's how McLean describes the latest research, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology:

The paper reports data from two separate studies. One questioned 332 subjects solicited from religious web sites and religious organizations. It included Christians and Jews.

This study found that those who trusted in God to look out for them had lower levels of worry and less intolerance of uncertainty in their lives than those who had a “mistrust” of God to help them out.

As part of the research, which was funded by an anonymous private donor who Rosmarin says has no particular religious bias, just an interest in spirituality, 125 subjects from Jewish organizations participated in an "audio-video program designed to increase trust in God and decrease mistrust in God. (For this, Rosmarin said, they did a "gratitide exercise:" they were told to think about something they valued dearly — their hands, legs, eyes, a pet, even a car — and to think about what it would be like to lose that thing. Then, once they pondered the loss, they were told to think about getting the thing back as a gift and asked to express their thanks for the gift.)

Participants in the two-week program reported significant increases in trust in God and significant decreases in mistrust in God, as well as clinically and statistically significant decreases in intolerance of uncertainty, worry and stress.

Simply by knowing what people believe, Rosmarin said, mental health professionals can do a better job of helping patients.

Amen.

This program aired on August 5, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.

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