Effects of Prayer On the Body and Mind

Effects of Prayer On the Body and Mind April 25, 2023

effects of prayer
effects of prayer
Ben White / Unsplash

A basketball player closes his eyes on the bench and mumbles a few words before the game. Elsewhere, a woman kneels beside their sick parent lying in a hospital bed and quietly asks for help. Those who follow a religion are likely familiar with praying, believing it can deliver miracles. Researchers have long shown an interest in the effects of prayer, dissecting how it alters one’s physical and mental state.

During the coronavirus pandemic, prayer took the forefront of hope and healing in the U.S. A Pew Research Center survey found that 55% of Americans prayed for the pandemic to end. If you ask them, the distribution of vaccines and fewer cases directly resulted from their collective spiritual efforts.

About 42% of Americans who believe in God say their prayers are heard, despite declining numbers of religious followers overall. So what exactly happens to you when you pray? This article will explore how praying affects the body and mind and why the impacts are difficult to measure accurately.

Prayer vs. Meditation

Prayer and meditation may seem similar — both involve sitting quietly with your eyes closed while honing your focus — but they differ in several ways.

Religious people pray as a means of communicating with divine power — many times, prayer helps them build a deeper connection with God. Almost every religion has different practices, rituals and blessings for everything from healing to forgiveness. For instance, the Holy Qur’an says followers of Islam must pray five times daily as commanded by Allah. Judaism and Christianity have similar rules about when or how to pray. 

Conversely, meditation is building a more significant connection inward toward yourself. Rather than speak your thoughts, your goal is to concentrate on your breath, the silence around you and your energy. It’s a personal practice to help you reach clarity in your being — an ideal practice for those who are not religious.

How Praying Affects the Body and Mind

Scientists have explored the effects of prayer and meditation on the body’s ability to manage stress, depression and anxiety. While many studies have examined meditation’s impacts on people’s well-being, researchers are trying to understand more about the health benefits of prayers.

Physical Health

Historically, the perception has been that science and religion are on opposite sides of the spectrum. However, a 2017 study found that 65.2% of physicians believed in God, while 29% said their faith or spirituality encouraged them to pursue medicine.

It seems miracles occur in the medical field all the time. Take John Brown, who was diagnosed with a glioma brain tumor at age 30. Glioblastoma — a type of glioma — has a survival rate of 6.8%, while the average life span is eight months. After Brown and his wife sought healing missionaries and began to pray, an MRI showed that the tumor turned to scar tissue months later — Brown has remained cancer-free for over 19 years.

Some doctors remain skeptical of the effects of prayer on physical healing. Using MRIs, they studied whether prayer can relieve osteoarthritis — a gradual reduction in bone cartilage. The medical researchers, who examined 46 followers of Islam who prayed regularly for over 10 years, determined that prayer had little impact on patients with osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Nevertheless, faithful people believe their prayers can induce healing.

Mental Health

Perhaps the notion that prayer can help those with depression and anxiety is easier to believe than physical healing, especially based on the positive outcomes of meditation for mental health. 

Like meditating, prayer can have a calming effect on an individual, which aids other ailments. If you pray, you’re more likely to reduce your stress levels and decrease the chances of having an anxious or depressive episode. Reducing stress might also lower your risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease. 

One particular study found that people who believe God listens to their prayers have lower anxiety levels. When they feel the Divine has responded to their prayers, they have a greater sense of safety and assurance, resulting in better mental health.

Emotional Health

In January 2023, a mass shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park, California, left 11 people dead and several injured. A week later, the Venerable Guo Yuan led attendees in prayer at a Buddhist ceremony, hoping it would comfort the families, friends and community members impacted by the shooting. 

When tragedy strikes, trauma alters the amygdala — your fight or flight mode — making it more challenging to balance your emotions and causing you to remain highly alert. 

Different types of prayers tend to help people in these situations — “letting go” and “alignment” prayers encourage you to surrender your control to the Divine and believe that your higher power is working on straightening things out in your lives.

Additionally, most Americans believe prayers benefit others the most. About 88% of Americans pray for those who need comfort during a crisis.

Benefits of Prayer Are Difficult to Study

It’s hard to comprehend the benefits of prayer fully, especially since there is no way to know whether a higher power truly exists. There is also as much religious skepticism in the scientific world as there is scientific skepticism among religious followers.

Can scientists rely on personal reporting about how praying affects the body and mind? It’s not the same as examining the efficacy of a drug or technique, so how would they process the results?

Nevertheless, researchers can examine how belief in a higher power impacts the quality of life of those who pray, which could further impact people’s physical, mental and emotional states. Similar scientific approaches occur when analyzing the effects of meditation.

One would never tell a person not to pray for their health and well-being. Their belief in its power could have the most powerful and positive effect of all. 

The Power of Prayer Remains a Mystery

Prayer may or may not make a difference in one’s physical, mental and emotional health — but that doesn’t mean it should be discounted. The practice should be encouraged if people find comfort, hope and healing when they pray. However, prayer shouldn’t be a substitute for seeking medical care. Perhaps it’s best to adopt the belief that medicine and prayer work in tandem.

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