When Prayer Makes Anxiety Worse

Several new studies show that praying might help alleviate worries—but only if the person has a secure relationship with God.

The fourth chapter of the book of Philippians instructs the faithful, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."

But for those who are anxious about everything, prayer can sometimes help and sometimes hurt. Past research on the mental-health benefits of praying have been mixed. Some studies have found that people who pray more are more satisfied and happy, others found no relationship to well-being, and still others found a negative correlation.

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.

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"Rejected, unanswered or otherwise unsuccessful experiences of prayer may be disturbing and debilitating and lead to more frequent and severe symptoms of anxiety-related disorders," Bradshaw said.

In the more recent study, the authors describe God as the "ultimate attachment figure." The Heavenly Father serves as a sort of an actual father for adult believers. And past research has shown having supportive Earthly parents can improve well-being.

But it's also possible that the correlation is going the other way: Anxious people might see a more unreliable God because they themselves are insecure.

As Robert Koenig, a Duke University psychiatry professor, told Huffington Post, “My suspicion is that … people with emotional problems see their entire world in a negative light and often feel a need to blame someone—and God is often the target.”

For some anxious people, God is, as they say, one of us. And unfortunately, that means they see their own doubts reflected back in Him.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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