In a recent press release, the American Psychological Association identified an ongoing national mental health crisis caused by stress.
So we’re all looking for ways to combat stress, anxiety, and depression. From herbal supplements, to exercise plans, to clinical care regimens — the range of solutions currently being researched is pretty expansive.
What you might not know, though, is that prayer already has a long and successful track record when it comes to strengthening mental and physical health. Here are three proven ways prayer improves our wellbeing.
1. Prayer helps us combat addiction and resist temptation
One of the hardest parts of overcoming bad habits and addictions is dealing with the cravings that hit us when our willpower to resist is at its lowest point. Research has shown that alcoholics experience less craving for alcohol after praying. The benefits of lessened craving even works for those who are not addicted to alcohol — research subjects who prayed every day for four weeks drank half as much as those who didn’t pray.
One of the classic definitions of prayer is “a conversation with God.” By incorporating prayer into our daily lives, we not only build a personal relationship with God, but we become more used to inviting Him into the joys and struggles we experience every day.
As the relationship deepens, we realize that He is actually always with us, wanting to accompany us through whatever we are struggling with. When we are finally able to open ourselves up to God in moments of extreme temptation, we find that there is nothing that we can’t handle when we handle it together with Him.
Pro-tip: If finding God in your day-to-day is proving challenging, try the Ignatian Examen prayer. Replaying your day like a movie in your mind at night and looking for moments of “consolation” and “desolation” is a great way to start building the muscle of noticing God’s presence in your life.
2. Prayer makes you more resilient to stress
In her 2018 book The Superstress Solution, Dr. Roberta Lee points to some remarkable data on physical effects of spirituality: “Heart patients were fourteen times more likely to die following surgery if they did not practice religion.” In another section, she reports that “people who are more religious tend to become depressed less often. When they do become depressed, they recover more quickly.”
Stress can be a very useful thing when you are in a life-or-death situation because it focuses the majority of our attention on one specific threat through a burst of cortisol and adrenaline production. But chronic stress — which is simply being in a constant state of stress — has many debilitating effects, including a suppressed immune system, disrupted sleep cycle, digestive problems, reproductive issues, heart disease, memory challenges, and much more.
In addition to exercise and improving your diet, the American Psychological Association’s number-one recommendation to handle life’s stresses is to eliminate or change how you deal with your stress: “How you perceive and think about a stressor can also make a big impact on how you respond. It’s not always possible to escape a stressful situation or avoid a problem, but you can try to reduce the stress you are feeling.”
That is what we do when we build a prayer habit. As we pray and grow deeper in our relationship with God, we shift the center of our worldview away from ourselves and toward union with God.
Your work deadline is important, your grades are important, your social relationships are important — but nothing is more important than your relationship with the God who created the universe. By revisiting and re-prioritizing this goal daily, it correctly reorders all the stresses in your life — it raises your vision from the demands in front of your nose to the eternal horizon of God’s love for each of us. This limits the control your stresses have over you and allows you to navigate life with confidence, hope, and joy.
Pro-tip: If discerning God’s will in your life is proving difficult, try praying with Lectio Divina (“Divine Reading”). Start with slowly reading an excerpt from Scripture, which is God’s word, and focus on listening for what God is revealing to you by noticing what word, image, or phrase stands out to you.
3. Prayer improves overall physical and emotional health
One large population study by Harvard Professor Tyler VanderWeele found that young adults who prayed daily had a whole range of positive effects in comparison to those who never prayed:
“Compared with never praying or meditating, at least daily practice was associated with greater positive affect, emotional processing, and emotional expression; greater volunteering, greater sense of mission, and more forgiveness; lower likelihoods of drug use, early sexual initiation, STIs, and abnormal Pap test results; and fewer lifetime sexual partners. It was also possibly associated with greater life satisfaction and self-esteem, greater likelihood of being registered to vote, fewer depressive symptoms, and a lower risk of cigarette smoking.”
When we prayerfully meditate, we are searching for God’s will in our lives. In fact, that’s the very definition of meditation — it is “above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking.”
We do this not to abandon responsibility for our lives, but because we know how much God loves us. He wants what is best for us, and in praying, we seek to discover what that is.
As we do this seeking, we discover the movements that God stirs in our hearts, give voice to realities that we are facing, and submit in humility and gratitude to God’s will for us.
Pro-tip: If you are looking for a simple way to build prayer into your daily routine, you might try using the ACTS prayer structure. This mnemonic device can help you remember a simple four-step prayer that can be customized to whatever is on your mind in a given day.
Stress will always be a part of life, and prayer alone isn’t a solution for every problem. In fact, if you are experiencing serious mental or emotional health issues, please reach out to a local healthcare professional for guidance and assistance.
But prayer can be an important part of the answer. By building a personal relationship with God, inviting Him into our daily routine, and ordering our life around following His will, we will not only have a more spiritually fulfilled life, but one that is physically and emotionally healthier as well.
Alessandro is on staff with Hallow, a Catholic prayer and meditation app that helps you develop and deepen your relationship with God through audio-guided contemplative prayer sessions. If you are looking for a resource to help you develop a personal prayer habit, the app can help you get started — it is free to download and has permanently free content, as well as an option to upgrade to a premium subscription with additional content and features. You can start a free trial of Hallow Plus, the premium subscription, here.