Prayer can be very calming. Or very disturbing. It depends on your assumptions about God and how the universe works that makes the difference.
A new study published in Sociology of Religion suggests that prayer can help ease people’s anxiety, but whether it does so depends on the personality of the God they believe in. That is, whether someone has a relationship with what they perceive to be an angry, vengeful God or more of a friendly figure could determine whether prayer brings relief—or simply more stress.
“For many individuals, God is a major source of comfort and strength that makes the world seem less threatening and dangerous,” Matt Bradshaw, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University’s College of Arts and Sciences, said in a release. “But other people form avoidant or insecure attachments to God—meaning that they do not necessarily believe God will be there when they need Him. For them, prayer may feel like an unsuccessful attempt to cultivate and maintain an intimate relationship with God.”
For the study, Bradshaw and his colleagues analyzed 1,714 respondents to a 2010 Gallup survey about religion. The participants were also asked questions like, “Over the past month, how often have you felt nervous, anxious, or on edge?” and whether they felt that “God’s reactions to me seem to be inconsistent.” The average participant attends church about once a month, prays somewhere between “several times per week” and “once a day,” and identifies him/herself as “somewhat religious.”
What they found was that those who prayed more frequently felt “a secure attachment to God.” But those who thought God was distant and unresponsive were far more likely to show signs of anxiety-related disorders. This echoes an April study that found that people who believe God is malevolent are more likely to suffer from anxiety, paranoia, and compulsions.