After conducting two experimental studies testing the anxiety-reducing effects of religion, researchers from the University of Toronto Scarborough ‘believe’ religion may help. The study results suggest that individuals with strong religious beliefs may have lower stress levels when thinking about God. Of course, the study also found that exposing atheists to religious beliefs had the opposite effect, instead provoking anxiety.
The researchers theorized that conscious and unconscious exposure to religious ideals and symbols would decrease subjects’ stress, as measured by brain activity. The first experiment tested the correlation between conscious exposure to religion and stress. All 41 of the subjects were students with strong religious beliefs. They were randomly separated into two groups: one group was instructed to write a paragraph about their religious beliefs (experimental), while the other group wrote about their favorite season (control). Both groups completed a task specifically formulated to produce errors. The results showed that the group that wrote about their religious beliefs had less stress than the control group.
The second experiment tested the correlation between unconscious exposure to religion and stress. The 40 subjects consisted of students with varying religious beliefs, including Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists. The students were separated into two groups: one group was instructed to unscramble religion-related words into coherent phrases (experimental), and the other group unscrambled general, non-religious words into coherent phrases (control). Both groups completed the task presented in the first experiment. After the task was completed, the subjects were given a test to assess their belief in God. The results showed believers in God in the experimental group displayed lower anxiety than both the atheists in the experimental group and subjects in the control group. On the flip side, the researchers found that “priming nonbelievers with religious concepts causes an increase” in stress.
In spite of its small sample size, the study could support the belief that religion reduces stress and contributes to a healthier lifestyle. A similar study performed in Texas had comparable results: religion seemingly shielded believers from experiencing high levels of stress, even though they suffered from poor health and financial hardship. Because humans possess the innate need to explain the events that occur around them, researchers believe that religion quells anxiety by providing an answer. God’s presence legitimizes human existence and presents a possible reason why misfortune occurs. According to the study, theists may experience less anxiety than atheists because they believe the burdens they suffer are a crucial part of God’s plan for their lives.
Atheists need not “stress” over their convictions, however. Although thinking about God may not benefit unreligious individuals, researchers theorize that “thinking about strong beliefs in general” could have as much impact as it does a pious person reflecting on God, such as using affirmations. Focusing on whatever belief system you’ve developed – be it God or science – could potentially lower your anxiety.