Double Helix Double Helix News Series

Prayer may help relieve stress, but fewer Americans make time for it

Photo illustration by Nadin Panina/Shutterstock

(RNS) — For many Americans, the days before Christmas are stress central.

There’s the scramble to fit in one more shopping spree, the rush to post Christmas greetings, attend church services, volunteer at the soup kitchen, bake cookies, wrap gifts, fight traffic.

And then, when families finally gather, there are the simmering feuds just waiting to erupt.

Americans are feeling stressed during the holidays — and year-round.

The American Psychological Association’s newest “Stress in America” survey of 3,440 adults shows the public’s overall stress level remains the same as last year’s, with an average level of 4.8 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most stress. But how Americans respond to stress is changing.

Notably, fewer Americans are turning to prayer.

Only 29 percent of Americans polled said they pray to relieve stress, a gradual but consistent decline since the high of 37 percent recorded in 2008.

“Do people consider prayer or attending church not necessarily something that manages stress?” asked Lynn Bufka, a psychologist with the APA’s Stress in America team. “We don’t know.”

And while a growing number of Americans are turning to alternative spiritual practices such as meditation and yoga, they are still not very widespread. Twelve percent of Americans meditate or do yoga, up from 9 percent in 2016.

The two most popular ways to relieve stress? Listening to music (47 percent), and exercising (46 percent).

Kevin L. Ladd, a professor of psychology at Indiana University South Bend, said it makes sense that, as society grows less religious in the traditional sense, fewer people are turning to prayer.

“There is certainly a shift in the American landscape, with people thinking about themselves as more spiritual than religious,” Ladd said. “Rather than having specific traditions offering some guidance in terms of specific practices, individuals tend to be creating their own practices that are personally meaningful.”

For some that may mean an ever-growing menu of wellness activities such as guided sleep meditation, sound therapy or mindful travel — all intended to reduce stress.

To be sure, prayer is not always a panacea, said Blake V. Kent, who studies prayer at Baylor University. In a recent paper he co-authored, Kent found that people’s view of God determines whether prayer is an effective way of managing stress.

“Where the perception of God is secure, warm and loving, then prayer is associated with positive mental health outcomes and coping with stressors,” Kent said. “But when the perception of God is distant or disconnected, prayer is associated with negative outcomes.”

Still, prayer should not be dismissed as an old-fashioned or ineffective method of relieving stress. In fact, its ritual or rote nature may be a source of strength, said Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, founding director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds.

“One thing that’s great about America is the level of choice we have,” said Mitelman. “But so much choice can add a lot of stress. Prayer can help us restrict our choices in a way that will ultimately give us more happiness and fulfillment. It can actually ease a bit of the cognitive load we have to deal with on a daily basis.”

But ultimately, many religious leaders and psychologists agree that, prayerfully or otherwise, managing stress can make life less … stressful.

A DNA strand next to the title of the series.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

15 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Want to reduce the effects of stress? – apparently Marmite is the answer!

    Search Marmite and stress – I love the stuff and my last BP reading was 118/86!

    Could be coincidence of course but it’s a lot more satisfying than I remember praying to have been. It’s quick, goes with cheese, eggs, butter, apple sauce etc., tastes sublime and doesn’t wear out the knees in your trousers.

  • I know when I left religion, then left belief in a god, then forgave my family for pushing all that crap on me in the first place, my stress level went way the hell down. Religion causes more stress than it solves, divides families, and teaches hate of certain groups of people.
    God was an invention for stories written in the 7th century BC, a character in a story. It was never meant to exist off the pages of the stories written mostly in Babylon. Just walk away and take a deep breath.

  • Are you a “charlatan”, Dennis Lurvey? Read on until the last word.

    According to Julian Baggini, “Yes, life without God can be bleak: Atheism is about facing up to that”, Guardian, March 9, 2012:

    “Atheists should point out that life without God can be meaningful, moral and happy … and … can just as easily be meaningless, nihilistic and miserable. Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. … The more brutal facts of life are harsher for us than they are for those who have a story to tell in which it all works out right in the end and even the most horrible suffering is part of a mystifying divine plan. If we don’t freely admit this, then we’ve betrayed the commitment to the naked truth that atheism has traditionally embraced. … It’s time we atheists ‘fessed up and admitted that life without God can sometimes be pretty grim. … Yet we embrace this because we think it represents the truth. And so we don’t just get on and enjoy life, we embark on our own intellectual pilgrimages, trying to make some progress in a universe on which no meaning has been writ. The journey can be wonderful but it can also be arduous and it may end horribly. But there is no other way, and anyone who urges you to follow a path that they promise leads to a bright future is either gravely mistaken or a charlatan.”

  • I can’t believe in things that don’t exist because ‘why not’ or make a choice to believe so I can have social engagements on sundays and wednesday nights. I do miss the social aspects and the homemade food.

    Atheists events are usually filled with speakers explaining why we don’t believe in god, which I already know, and are filled with hateful talk about believers. Believers are born into belief with no other choice. Everyone around them seems to believe and the cost for coming out is losing family and friends. I have no ill will for them, I used to be one. I experienced the loss of family and friends personally.

    But I am happy in the truth. I came by it from years of study and grieving what I grew up with. I have come to conclusions from provable evidence, I didn’t just pull it out of my butt. I take enormous pride in that, but I do miss the family that abandoned me.

  • I would summarize this long commentary differently, and more quickly.

    There are no rewards and no punishments. There are only consequences. Stuff happens, like it or not. The meaning of existence is the meaning we give to it, whether religious or not.

  • Doesn’t get any bleaker than that, folks. It’s just like the Bible says: Without God, your life has NO meaning, no purpose. You wind up in a spiritual limbo where hopefully you can earn a good living, get old & die, BUT never fulfill or even begin the life purpose & meaning that you were custom-built for.

    Your life can have eternal meaning and fulfillment, but without God you got nothing, even if you got money. Gotta plug into Christ.

    You can store all the fanciest, expensive gourmet foods you can buy, inside the fanciest computerized refrigerator you can purchase. Clearly the refrigerator’s existence has a specific purpose.

    But what good will that do if the fridge ISN’T plugged into the electrical source??

  • And as usual, you missed my point entirely in favor of your own jaundiced view of it.

    I didn’t say life is without meaning, nor would I think so.

    YOUR life might be meaningless without your faith. Personally. I think that is fairly sad. 2/3 of the world thinks your faith is wrong, and they have the only exactly correct one, or none at all. And thus your life is meaningless.

    What I said, and what you clearly believe, is that WE give our lives whatever meaning they have. You just choose to do it through a different means than I.

    Bully for you,

  • I wish I had been there before all goes south for you, brother Dennis Lurvey. Because it didn’t have to be “miss[ing] the social aspects and the homemade food” for you; you shouldn’t have to go through “the loss of family and friends personally”. I mean, what sort of “family and friends” is that, really? My fellow born-again Christian brothers and sisters can be so cruel, no denying that. So, this is trite, but I’m sorry, ‘bruh! – that “the family … abandoned [you]”!

    Now on to “provable evidence”. Too late now, I know, but FYI there are 2 types of “provable evidence”, the 1st beats Bible Christianity any day, but the 2nd puts it on equal field surface with its naysayers. I’m referring to (1) reliable scientific evidence and (2) reliable eyewitness testimony-based evidence. The former subjects Bible Christianity to science labs and the score is Faith 0 vs Science 10. The latter, however, is so good that it even trumps the former in the courts of law. The truth gets established much more often on account of reliable eyewitness testimony-based evidences than on scientific ones. Even DNA exonerations are an exception to the rule (they apply mostly to sex crimes but never victorious in all the other crimes). Eyewitnesses put criminals to prison more assuredly than sciences do! So I say, test Jesus and the gospel of salvation through His crucifixion, burial and resurrection – not in science labs – but in the courts to be determined by your fellow jurors. And don’t let third party testimony experts (analogous to theologians) interfere with your judgment.

  • In all of life’s experiences, you’re right about all of humanity being the same. Atheists bleed, Christians bleed. Atheists good, Christians good. Atheists cruel, Christians too. Everyone’s equal under the sun, sinners and saints alike.

    Which makes me wonder, What then is the big deal in the here and now? How about a Christian becoming a better person due to inner conversion? Can atheists do that too? Yeah, I suppose. OK, then, what about family of man stuff? Are Christians better off than atheists in terms of how many friends they have, of how close knit their inner circles are? Nope, you’re right about that, too.

    Ah, so, there’s really no big deal in the here and now that puts Christians on a platter and puts down atheists. You’ve got me there.

    Which means we must go beyond the here and now, as in times of suffering and death. Are atheists worse off than Christians when it comes to such times? The Guardian articles agrees with me that they do. But what say you?

  • “Gotta plug into Christ”! – AC/DC! – Americans Canadians / Doukhobors Celebrities alike!

    Man, you revive my early days Jesus-Saves zeal there, brother floydlee – which only you can do.

    Thanks!

  • Life and death in a few paragraphs? Thanks! 🤨

    These are very broad generalizations I am about to make. People who are religious have their god or gods and the hopes that what their faith tells them about what comes after death. That can give comfort. On the other hand, as you have already noted on so many other counts, that’s not a guarantee that they will go gently and happily into that good night.

    I don’t see that it is any different for people without religion. If you can accept heaven and/or hell, can you not accept that someone may not need either? death is a part of life. You live and then you die. You have very little to say about either fact. Without your will youare born, against your will you die— most of the time, at least. No one has come back to prove that there is life after death. If someone has, it has been such a rare occurrence that it is not a matter of knowledge, but only of faith.

    That doesn’t mean that I want to die, that I haven’t enjoyed My life. Or that it has no meaning. far from it. It simply means at I can accept what appears to be the reality of the situation. You get born. You get dead. If it is something else entirely after death, or before, for that matter, my beliefs about it have nothing to do with its reality. You see it as a Christian. A Hindu would see things quite differently. I can be fairly certain that no faith in particular has even part, let alone all of the answer.

    But believe it or not, accepting that you live and you die is also a comfort. Sort of like knowing that gravity will exist tomorrow just as assuredly as it does today. It means, at least to me, that I must make my life count according to my own lights and perspective. To me, then, the whole point of life is to be able to say at the end of it, “I had a blast. I did right. I did well. I loved people. People loved me. I added something to the world.”

    But those are my values, who I AM. I would probably feel the same way if I were religious, but be able as well to think that I will get rewarded for it. My oldest friend in the world, nearly 55 years now, is a fundamentalist Christian. He rejoices in his faith. But he would have been much the same good, kind, concerned, intelligent family man with a boatload of friends, children, and grandchildren. His religion didn’t make him a better person, but I think he made his religion better, from what I have heard from a couple of his fellow ministers.

    I hope that answers your question.

  • You know something, my brother Ben in Oakland? I really love you, man! This is where it’s at for me, discussing the simple & deep things of life – and death – with dear people like you who love doing it, too! And you’re right about every one, nonbeliever & believer alike, coming to terms with these precious & beautiful things. No scientific, philosophical or (non)religious finding or assertion can ever shake a person’s sense of validation. It never works that way. In fact, nothing works. Not even God, even if existing, would interfere in one’s life’s (and death’s) decision. I can accept that. If only my fellow born-again Christian brethren & cisterns can do that, too. They just don’t want to, I suppose. And so, out of frustration, they bomb abortion clinics, mug non-heterosexuals, and overthrow democratic governments. And silence fellow believers like me permanently.

    Happiest 2018 for you and loved ones, ‘bruh! Thank you for discussing yourself with myself. I really appreciate that.

  • That was very kind of you to say that. Thanks for the good wishes. the same to you and your family.

    I have to disagree on one point. You’re not being silenced. You have the right and the duty to speak up. It’s what I do, and what everyone who posts here does, but perhaps for different reasons. Some believe in power and control, Andy is indeed their religion. Some believe in tolerance and compassion, and that is theirs.
    ,

  • Interesting, considering that forensic “sciences” are being re-evaluated due to many not being what it purports to be – a technique or examination that yields consistently reliable results in every case. Also interesting that you claim DNA exonerations “apply mostly to sex crimes but never victorious in all the other crimes” where several murder convictions have been vacated as a result of DNA evidence see https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Pages/detaillist.aspx. I take it you trust the courts implicitly while not knowing that most trials in the U.S. are the result of plea (deals), NOT trials and certainly NOT trials with a jury. From a NY Times article: “because most pleas are negotiated before a prosecutor prepares a case
    for trial, the “thin presentation” of evidence needed for indictment “is
    hardly ever subjected to closer scrutiny by prosecutors, defense
    counsel, judges or juries.”

    On matters regarding police, prosecutorial or other court corruption or mere human “mistake” … well, if you want to base your “knowledge” on clearly flawed (human) systems and people who usually have biases that cause blind spots, etc. I suppose that’s your right and privilege … but to suggest to someone else as “factual” and “certain” … shivers … I hope he checks out more facts first!

    You are correct though; people in church or family (as well as others) can be quite cruel while being “holy” (not) or “right” (obviously not). Does that mean “God doesn’t exist”? Of course not; Jesus pointed the fact out numerous times, even to the faces of the cruel (religious people). I read a great essay regarding believers, atheists and agnostic many years ago and wish I could cite it but I do remember the difference noted is that the atheist and the agnostic (and the believer) all start climbing the mountain to determine whether God is real or to make a relationship with God. The atheist starts up the mountain, determines nothing and nobody is there halfway up and the matter is closed; no more time or effort wasted. The agnostic keeps going, with science as instructor as well as guide; this person KNOWS that science hasn’t answered many or most matters affecting humans and we don’t have instruments for measuring or even detecting (reliably) many things we KNOW DO EXIST. Look into culturing spirochete bacteria, for example … or treating syphilis (to eradicate it from the human body). Things like that are an education in themselves. If you are REALLY looking for God, to determine whether or not He exists, you have to LOOK for Him, not merely to others or their “facts” or opinions … or a seriously flawed and largely broken system, like the U.S. (and state) courts. If injustice and ignorance, plus cruelty, is the best that humanity offers most, it’s definitely no “improvement”. Sometimes I find it a wonder how much faith atheist live by, without (apparently) ever realizing it … their faith being placed in human beings and largely what they are told or read. Sort of “like” religion, but I know atheists don’t like that … so I’m just noting the similarity (as it appears to me and based on my OWN experiences and observations … KNOWLEDGE I’ve gained through my own efforts 🙂

  • Impressive there, sister dawn clabaugh! You’ve thought through all this – praise God & Jesus! Do stick around at St. RNS, please! Where church services are 24/7!

    It’s my latest thought experiment, this. Because atheists win all the time on Science vs Christianity etc., etc. But untested yet is Trials vs Christianity. I think the gospel of Jesus Christ and of salvation through His crucifixion, burial and resurrection is founded firmly – not on Scientific Evidences, no doubt about that (and so atheists all the time) – but on Eyewitness Testimonial Evidences. We should no longer take this debate to the Theatre of Laboratories but to the Theatre of Courts. It’s imperfect, as you’ve proven for me through your statements. But, given how atheists around here are taken by surprise by this approach, I say let me try this out further.

    In other words, thanks for your valuable input, ‘mos def!

ADVERTISEMENTs