How Prayer Affects Your Mental Health

Discover the effects of prayer on your mental health.

J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey opens with protagonist Franny Glass in the midst of an existential crisis. Looking for some consolation, she clings to a Russian Orthodox spiritual book called The Way of a Pilgrim, about a man who never stops reciting the Jesus Prayer.

So, Franny makes the prayer her own mantra, hoping it will help her focus less on herself.

“Something happens after a while,” she explains. “I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing. Which has a really tremendous, mystical effect on your whole outlook. I mean that’s the whole point of it, more or less. I mean you do it to purify your whole outlook and get an absolutely new conception of what everything’s about.”

I had never heard of the Jesus Prayer before I read Franny and Zooey. But the book made me wonder whether internalizing this prayer could actually help someone keep calm.

Turns out, it can.

Focusing on deep breathing while repeating a short prayer, like the Jesus Prayer, is a simple stress-reducing technique. In fact, a randomized controlled trial published in 2018 found that repeating the Jesus Prayer helps people manage stress and develop an attitude of surrender — a legit coping skill.

The study authors created an online contemplative prayer program to teach participants how to cope when facing stressors that ranged from job loss, a natural disaster, or even running late for work. The program taught them how to use a contemplative practice (in this case, repetition of the Jesus Prayer) to surrender to God. For two weeks, participants used this information to evaluate their stress, sense of surrender, and spiritual experiences each day.

The online prayer program showed participants how “to let go by trusting in God’s love, power, and wisdom when faced with life’s inevitable environmental demands, shifting their focus to him during moments of stress, reappraising their experience in the process.”

The findings resembled those of similar studies on mindfulness practices: Focusing on the name of Jesus worked like a mindful awareness technique, decreasing stress and improving surrender in participants.

The authors argued that in turning to the Jesus Prayer in times of stress, Christians can learn to focus on God’s presence and reevaluate a demanding situation until it seems less overwhelming. This helps us cope by gaining control of our reactions to stress.

A 2016 study on the Jesus Prayer published similar findings — participants reported a greater sense of calm thanks to the prayer. Those who recited it daily reported a deeper connection with and deeper trust in God.

These studies show that Christians can use this technique to manage and evaluate stress better and become more aware of God’s presence in their lives.

It’s not just the Jesus Prayer, though — the benefits of religious practices on well-being have been well-documented. For example, people who participate in religious activities “have larger support networks, more social contacts, and greater satisfaction with social support,” the Handbook of Religion and Health reports.

Church attendance and well-being aren’t just associated because of this sense of social support, though. Research suggests that the mental health benefits of religious services seem tied to “people trying to live their religion in their daily lives.”

Research also shows that counting our blessings alleviates stress. People who count their blessings are happier and more content with their lives. Gratitude — which just means being thankful for the gifts we’ve received — can improve our relationships and even our health.

Giving thanks to God is a way to form the habit of gratitude, like writing in a gratitude journal and thanking others. In fact, it is the fundamental act Catholics do when they go to Mass — the word, Eucharist (which refers to both Communion and the celebration of the Mass as a whole) literally means “thanksgiving.”

Rosaries are stress-fighting tools, too. When reciting the rosary, we don’t even have to think about deep breathing — our breath slows down on its own, one study found. Slowing down our breath calms us down and benefits heart health. Other preliminary research suggests that reciting the rosary reduces anxiety.

Of course, for those living with mental illness, religious practices aren’t a substitute for treatment (i.e. therapy or medication). Still, prayer can be an effective coping skill — like journaling, going for a walk, or box breathing — with the added benefit of connecting us with God.

In the end, no number of rosaries or retreats will make us immune to mental health problems, stress, or other demands. But turning to the time-tested practices of prayer can help us know Christ’s peace — it’s a proven fact.

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