Science Reveals How Spirituality Improves Your Mental Health (Even If You Don’t Believe)


“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” — Voltaire

I struggle to talk about God to others outside my spiritual community. It’s like living life between two diametrically opposed viewpoints.

On one hand, I can freely speak about my beliefs and let the word “God” flow through me without any hesitation.

On the other hand, when I want to talk about spirituality to a general audience, all I do is shut up and smile (it’s more of a poker face oftentimes).

The reason I struggle with this is it’s difficult to explain to people the concept of God. I mean, where do you start? To me, He is Omnipresent, All-Perceiving, and unconditionally loving.

But that’s difficult for a ‘rational’ or ‘pragmatic’ person to understand.

Those who don’t believe often look at this whole picture from the angle of “What’s In It For Me?”

And with the help of recent research, I at least have some answers.

Religion and Mental Health

David H. Rosmarin talks about the story of John — a Caucasian, middle-aged male with chronic depression, a history of substance dependence, ongoing marital struggles, multiple medical conditions, significant physical pain, and access to firearms, his clinical team was concerned.

There was every reason to believe that John was at the risk of suicide. None of his psychiatric medications were working. Neither were therapists able to solve the case.

What hit the mark eventually was spiritual care. After a spiritual consult, he started to improve, to the surprise of his clinical team who’d tried every trick in the book. Within weeks, though still depressed, he became less edgy and better ready for therapy.

But why did he change so quickly?

He became hopeful for the future. By spiritual beliefs and remedy, he harnessed the divine to deal with emotional stress. Soon, he accepted his medical and marital vows to envision that somehow his life will improve over time.

And data suggests that John is not alone. One review of the literature determined that 100% of all published studies on spirituality/religion and suicide have found that the former protects against the latter.

It pays to dig deeper. Why does spirituality help people cope with deep emotional stress and suicidal tendencies?

Some reasons are that spiritual activities provide communities, lower addiction t substances, and common obedience to religious scriptures. However, the most important piece of the puzzle is hopefulness.

The core belief here is that in a higher power. Spirituality offers, above all, a higher perspective that things happen for some reason and serve a greater purpose.

This helps us to see a brighter future instead of focusing on the negative aspects of our life.

The lack of such belief in our society is what, I believe, is at the root of most of our problems.

But even that’s not enough, at least in my opinion.

Cultivating a Relationship With God

Living in a country like India, I see a majority of people believing in the concept of God. But only a few engage in regular practices to keep that perspective on the top of their minds.

In a spiritually inclined country like ours, there aren’t lesser problems I see people roaming around with.

Yes, as we saw above, religion/spirituality has a positive effect on mental health (there are exceptions of course). But one key variable in this equation has been increasingly significant — a relationship with God.

To understand this concept better, let us first understand something else— attachment relationships between infants and caregivers

The psychological theory of attachment was first described by John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst who researched the effects of separation between infants and their parents

Bowlby hypothesized that the extreme behaviors infants engage in to avoid separation from a parent or when reconnecting with a physically separated parent — like crying, screaming, and clinging — were evolutionary mechanisms.

Research on Bowlby’s theory of attachment showed that infants placed in an unfamiliar situation and separated from their parents will generally react in one of three ways upon reunion with the parents:

  1. Secure attachment: These infants showed distress upon separation but sought comfort and were easily comforted when the parents returned;

  2. Anxious-resistant attachment: A smaller portion of infants experienced greater levels of distress and, upon reuniting with the parents, seemed both to seek comfort and to attempt to “punish” the parents for leaving.

  3. Avoidant attachment: Infants in the third category showed no stress or minimal stress upon separation from the parents and either ignored the parents upon reuniting or actively avoided the parents

Now, the same kind of attachment applies when we talk about individual relationships with God.

A person might avoid engaging with God (3rd), be anxious about the relationship (2nd), or be secure (1st). Even though these kinds of attachments seem quite similar, the minute changes make a big difference.

Studies show that secure attachment is important for mental health.

People who show higher levels of secure attachment:

  • engage less in drug and alcohol abuse

  • have less internet use

  • show lower levels of loneliness and depression

  • have greater life satisfaction.

And in all other types of attachment (avoidant/anxious), these behaviors take their opposite form.

A believer’s relationship with God also uniquely affects his mental health irrespective of his attachment relationships to family members or partners.

Do I Still Have to ‘Believe’?

This question will still remain on people’s minds even if I show them that cultivating a relationship with God is good for them. Let’s talk more about this.

Alyssa Strenger in the 2016 study posited that even non-believers might still hold mental representations of God that affect their behaviors, emotions, and cognitions.

How? As it turns out, many people don’t have the sort of evidence that makes them believe in God. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t try to engage in a relationship with God (just in case God is there).

This implies, that the emotions and behaviors that believers show can persist even if a person is a non-believer.

Strenger found that secure attachment to God was important for both believers and non-believers when it came to eating disorder symptoms, and there was no significant difference in the role it played for believers versus non-believers.

And so it is that to some extent, we all believe that there’s a higher power in the Universe that gives us hope. Because without that hope, we’re all stuck in life not knowing what the future holds for us.

As we saw in the case of John, his spiritual perspective gave him hope. This is true for all of us.

And that perhaps seems a good starting point for me to explain to others why I believe in God.

Every religion tells us that God is not a bearded man sitting and guiding every moment of every person’s life. God is *Satchitananda — *ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new bliss.

But it’s difficult for humans to relate to that aspect. After all, how can a cup hold the whole ocean?

This is why it is important for all of us (whether you believe in Him or not) to cultivate a relationship with Him.

Inspired by my guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, I think of God as my Divine Mother. And I pray to Her, share my thoughts with Her and try to offer myself completely.

Some of you will scoff at me. Some may close this tab right away because it all got too ‘woo-woo’ for them. That’s fine. I can no longer hold my beliefs inside me.

Are You Still Here?

If you are then look at it objectively. Don’t reject what you just read. Just think about it. Read, study, ask questions, and meditate on it.

It really holds the key to your mental health and happiness. In fact, your life can flip upside down as mine did, when you realize this true reality.

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Written on January 17, 2021