Religion Reduces Anxiety—A Matter of Faith or Fact?

March 06, 2009 05:45 PM
by Rachel Balik
Two studies show that the brains of religious people have less intense responses to error, suggesting that faith in God can reduce anxiety.

God on the Brain

Religious people are less anxious than nonbelievers when they make mistakes, two recent studies on brain activity suggest.  Psychology professors at the University of Toronto measured participants’ reactions to their own mistakes during a Stroop task, a standard cognitive test. Believers showed less activity in a portion of the brain that’s typically triggered during anxiety.

Many previous studies have tried to determine whether religion has a positive effect on mental health. In February 2008, the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at Oxford began a three-year study to develop a scientific understanding of why humans believe in God. Researchers will look for evidence that faith in God is a desirable evolutionary trait, and attempt to discover what aspects of religion can be attributed to nature, and which must be taught.

Related Topic: How Meditation, Spirituality and Religion Affect the Brain

It seems obvious that being more “relaxed” helps to minimize anxiety and encourage clearer thinking; however, how you relax appears to be important. A 2007 study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine measured the difference between meditation and relaxation training.
Psychologists compared a group of students trained for a month in mindfulness meditation with another that was taught somatic relaxation. Both techniques reduced stress, but meditation was more effective at reducing “distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviors,” indicating that it offered a “unique” method for minimizing distress.

Mindful meditation has also been found to alter the structure and functioning of monks’ brains, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2004. Five neuroscientists visited the Dalai Lama to explore neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire itself) and its relation to meditation.  The brains of novice and experienced monks were scanned as they meditated; the experienced monks showed a significantly higher level of gamma waves, a type of brain activity that plays a key role in consciousness.

Religion’s effect on the brain has yet to be fully assessed. However, research suggests that incorporating spirituality into children’s lives can help them navigate the difficult choices of adolescence. Several studies have shown that children raised with a spiritual or religious tradition are less likely to make poor choices about drugs and alcohol.

And in hard times, many find comfort in religion. In September, as the foundation of Wall Street began to crumble, many financiers turned to God and organized religion for support. Churches and synagogues throughout New York City reported a higher number of congregants in business suits.

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Reference: Stroop Tests

The University of Toronto researchers measured the anxiety of people taking a common cognitive control test, called a Stroop test. A Stroop test assesses how quickly someone can deal with two pieces of conflicting information, such as the word “red” printed in green type. Take a Stroop test at Nova Online.

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