Can Religion or Spirituality Help Ward Off Depression?

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Can Religion or Spirituality Help Ward Off Depression?

People who are committed to their religion cope better with stress / Photo by Jozef Polc via 123RF


Depression is one of the most common illnesses in the world that can extremely affect a person's life. The World Health Organization reported that more than 300 million people around the world are affected. In fact, about 800,000 of people die due to suicide every year. This shows that depression not affects a person's daily life and makes it harder for them to function but it also can lead to death. 

It should be known that depression is far different from common sadness or usual mood fluctuations. Depression can affect the way you live, interact with people, your views in life, and how you function on a daily basis. With its impact, WHO put the mental health condition in its priority list through the mental health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP). This program aims to help nations in increasing their services in terms of addressing a person with mental, neurological, and substance use disorders. 

Throughout the past decades, many medications have been introduced and continue to be applied to help people suffering from depression. These treatments, whether psychological or psychosocial, can extremely help them in controlling further damage in their brain and behavior. But there are a lot of people who believe that religion can also cure depression.


Is Divine Intervention Needed? 

Depression is not only a problem with emotions, but it is also a mental disorder that causes impairment of personal functioning and significant distress. It is difficult to survive every single day even in the presence of medications. Some people, especially those who have a strong faith in their religion, use their beliefs or spirituality to fight depression. In fact, a recent study explored religiosity/spirituality as a protective factor in this mental health condition. 

According to an article by Psychology Today, studies have shown the positive impacts of religiosity to depression. For instance, a study in 2005 involving older adults in the San Francisco Bay area showed that religion served as a buffer against depression in those with poor health. Another research in 2013 revealed that believers of God have a better response to treatment in their mental health condition. Aside from that, a study conducted by Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University Medical Center, showed that more religious people had fewer depressive symptoms.

The significance of religion or spirituality is associated with thicker cortices in bilateral parietal and occipital regions of the brain / Photo by Mark Bowden via 123RF


In an interview with Live Science, Koenig stated that people who are committed to their religion cope better with stress. "One of the reasons is because [religion] gives people a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and that helps them to make sense of negative things that happen to them," he said. These studies show that there's a clear link between religion and mental health benefits. Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, stated that meditative prayer and meditation have the potential to activate areas of the brain that are working with emotional responses. 

Frontal lobes, which are one of the active areas of the brain involved in regulating responses, can be further strengthened by religion through meditation and prayer. They help people be "more calm, less reactionary, and better able to deal with stressors." Additionally, these neural connections powered by religion can be a factor in changing the way the brain works. 

An article by the Science Alert added that recent research showed that the significance of religion or spirituality is associated with thicker cortices in bilateral parietal and occipital regions of the brain, which means that they have low risk in depression. "As we had previously reported cortical thinning in these regions as a stable biomarker for depression risk, we hypothesized that the thicker cortices in those reporting high importance of [religious or spiritual] beliefs may serve as a compensatory or protective mechanism," the authors concluded. 


Overall, religion is seen as a protective factor of people from depression. Although medications and professional help are extremely important, believers see faith and spirituality as their coping mechanism. 


Negative Impacts of Religion to Mental Health

Religion usually encourages believers to practice compassion and forgiveness. Therefore, people are more likely to resolve their problems being a person who can let go of negative emotions. However, religion can also be harmful especially if its beliefs or teachings have no positive effect on a person's mental health. For instance, if that particular group advocates hate, it can fuel negative emotions and beliefs, which can change how they treat other people, even themselves. 

This can also alter the way our brain works. Hate can activate areas of the brain that are involved in increasing stress and stimulate the release of stress hormones. If a religion also treats a health condition like an addiction as a punishment from God, it can worsen their condition since they will less likely to seek treatment. Additionally, believers also tend to experience greater emotional distress when they question God's love for them or when they feel abandoned by Him.



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