Can religious beliefs or spirituality help your mood disorder?

Medication and psychotherapy can be effective treatments for depression and anxiety, but many people also turn to a higher power for help. Prayer can be very comforting during times of grief and pain. For example, a New England Journal of Medicine study reported that 90 percent of Americans turned to religion following the events of September 11, 2001, to help them cope with their distress. While some research has suggested that religion may contribute to or worsen mental illnesses, more studies suggest that religion and spirituality appear to do more good than harm.


At first glance, religion and medicine seem to be at odds, but this split is relatively recent. In the United States, the first mental hospitals were run by priests in local monasteries. Religion was thought to be a civilizing influence on patients, who were allowed to attend religious services as a reward for good behavior. But in the late 19th century, mental health pioneers Jean Charcot and Sigmund Freud began to link religion with hysteria and neuroses, and mental health treatment lost its religious component.

Today, psychiatrists are increasingly willing to incorporate religion into their practice upon the request of their patients. In fact, psychiatry as a discipline is starting to recognize the potential benefits of religion in their patients' treatment. For example, the American College of Graduate Medical Education requires that programs provide training in religious or spiritual factors that influence psychological development.

Religion and depression

A 2009 review article from Duke University examined research on the relationships between religion and depression, suicide, anxiety, psychotic disorders and substance abuse. Out of 724 published studies, more than half found that religious beliefs had a statistically significant positive impact on mental health. Among 93 observational studies, two-thirds found that more-religious people had significantly lower rates of depression or fewer depressive symptoms. And among eight randomized clinical trials, people who participated in religious-based psychological interventions had faster symptom improvement than those in secular-based therapy or a control group.

Religious beliefs may be especially helpful for people with medical conditions who suffer from depression. The review article highlights a study of 1,000 people with depression who also suffered from congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Those who were the most religious recovered from their depression 50 percent faster than other patients.

Caregivers may also benefit from having spiritual beliefs—one study found that religious caregivers of recently deceased cancer patients were significantly less likely to develop major depression 13 months later. Similar results were found in other studies for caregivers of people with Alzheimer's disease.

Religion and anxiety

For many people, turning to religion and prayer during stressful times seems natural and even somewhat universal. The expression "there are no atheists in foxholes" is well known. According to the Duke review article, these coping mechanisms can be helpful in reducing anxiety.

Out of seven randomized clinical trials, six found that religious people who received religious interventions for generalized anxiety disorder reduced their anxiety more quickly than religious people who received secular or standard treatment.

The review also highlighted one clinical trial in which 56 people with panic disorder were treated with group cognitive-behavioral therapy. Participants who said religion was very important to them had significantly better symptom improvement and lower perceived stress 12 months later.

However, religious beliefs that focus on guilt and sin can actually increase anxiety. In a study of 100 women with gynecological cancer, those who said they felt that God was punishing them, had deserted them or was unable to make a difference had significantly higher anxiety than those who did not.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 21 Aug 2013

Last Modified: 21 Aug 2013