In our increasingly chaotic, stressful world, many people look for ways to help regulate emotions and restore peace. A new study found that people who believe in some type of faith use similar emotion-regulation strategies as psychologists. The research showed that religious people try to think about hardship in a positive light, known as “cognitive reappraisal” in psychology. They also have higher confidence when faced with struggles, called “coping self-efficacy” to psychologists.
Both of these skills have been proven to reduce symptoms of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. The research was published in the Journal of Religion and Health.
“It appears that religious people are making use of some of the same tools that psychologists have systematically identified as effective in increasing well-being and protecting against distress,” said Florin Dolcos, a professor of psychology in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He led the study along with psychology professor Sanda Dolcos and graduate student Kelly Hohl.
“This suggests that science and religion are on the same page when it comes to coping with hardship,” he said.
They decided to undertake the research because of prior studies showing that religion and psychology both employ similar coping techniques.
“For example, when somebody dies, a religious person may say, ‘OK, now they are with God,’ while someone who isn’t religious may say, ‘Well, at least they are not suffering anymore,'” Florin said. So, in both scenarios, the person views the situation in a positive light to cope with their pain or grief.
The in-depth study that showed how faith can regulate emotions
For the study, the researchers wanted to find out if religious people utilized and benefited from reappraisal to regulate emotions. 203 volunteers with no history of clinical anxiety or depression partook in the study. 57 of the participants answered a questionnaire about their religious or spiritual beliefs. Then, the research team asked the group to describe their coping strategies, attitudes, and religious practices.
“We asked them about their coping styles. So, for religious coping, we asked if they try to find comfort in their religious or spiritual beliefs,” Hohl said. “We asked them how often they reappraise negative situations to find a more positive way of framing them or whether they suppress their emotions.”
Then, the team asked participants questions designed to quantify their depression and anxiety symptoms. They also evaluated their coping self-efficacy when faced with challenging situations. Hohl said she looked for any correlations between coping strategies, levels of discomfort, and religious or non-religious practices. Furthermore, she employed a mediation analysis to understand what practices or attitudes affected levels of depression and/or anxiety.
“If we are just looking at the relationship between religious coping and lower anxiety, we don’t know exactly which strategy is facilitating this positive outcome,” Sanda Dolcos said. “The mediation analysis helps us determine whether religious people are using reappraisal as an effective way of lessening their distress.”
Furthermore, the mediation analysis revealed whether a religious person’s coping self-efficacy helped them regulate emotions during times of crisis. Psychological studies have shown that people with higher confidence in their ability to cope with crises have fewer symptoms of mental illness.
“We found that if people are using religious coping, then they also have decreased anxiety or depressive symptoms,” Sandra said.
Benefits of believing in something greater than yourself
She went on to say that the two skills listed above, cognitive reappraisal and coping self-efficacy, resulted in decreased distress. Hohl said that this study should pique the interest of psychologists working with clients who follow a faith.
“It should also speak to clergy members or church leaders who can promote this kind of reappraisal to help parishioners make sense of the world and increase their resilience against stress,” she said.
“I hope this is an example of where religion and science can work together to maintain and increase well-being,” Florin Dolcos said.