A recent Gallup study reveals a positive connection between regular church attendance and a positive self-evaluation of one’s mental health. I invited experts to give their opinions on these findings and what it is about church attendance that contributes to positive mental health.
Minister and author Damon Nailer agrees there are benefits to regular church attendance, attributing that in person to the messages and giving. Nailer notes “During most church services, the messages are motivational and provide hope for the congregation. And with giving, the Bible says, ‘It’s more blessed to give than to receive’. There is something about giving of your time, talents, and treasure that enables you to feel free, happy, and fulfilled, which creates healthy thoughts and a better perspective of yourself.”
Health coach Karla Kueber points to the connection people experience with others as well as with God (or their higher power). “Practicing prayer is a reminder that God is the ultimate source of safety and connection regardless of what is happening in life and the world around us,” said Kueber.
Kueber also pointed to research that indicates what happens in the brain during meditation and prayer, with more activity in the frontal lobe, which is responsible for social interactions, emotions, problem-solving, and memory.
This research is why Candida Wiltshire, MSW, LCSW inquires about spiritual practices when meeting with a prospective client. “This is an important part of how people see the world”, said Wiltshire. “When people believe there is a greater power at work, they can get to the point of acceptance faster. This reduces the timeline of that person's grieving process and allows them to transition in creating a new normal for themselves. It’s extremely powerful in the healing process.”
Reaching acceptance helps people build resilience. Stephen Light, a certified stress management coach and co-owner of Nolah Mattress, notes that religious people become resilient by learning the different coping mechanisms taught by their faith. “For Christians and Muslims, their teachings tell them to pray,” said Light. “Buddhists have a more pragmatic approach to dealing with problems; they focus on maintaining a zen state to avoid negative emotions. Most religions have coping mechanisms to navigate through problems, which connect with the religion’s beliefs and help churchgoers improve their resilience and psychological flexibility.”
Psychologist Laura Louis, with Atlanta Couples Therapy, also believes a solid sense of faith can create resiliency. “Faith provides the belief that ‘things may be hard now, but I can get through it’. People are more likely to persevere and the church can provide a support system and social support, which all contribute to positive mental health. With my clients, I find that those who struggle benefit from attending church or exploring their spirituality.”
Author and speaker Russelyn Williams says the things she’s learned in Biblical studies line up with what modern psychology teaches about recovering from mental challenges. “For example, to avoid ruminating over negative thoughts, psychology teaches us to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones,” said Williams. “The Bible teaches the same thing in 2 Corinthians 10:5: ‘We are destroying arguments and all arrogance raised against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ’.”
But there’s a challenge in getting struggling people interested in church attendance. “People with any kind of mental health issue are less likely to attend church since there is a conflict between who they are (bad image) compared to who God is (perfect image) and who ‘church people’ are (bad people pretending to be good and judging them for being bad),“ said Rev. Dr. Rick Patterson.
Patterson believes people face mental health challenges more openly outside the church because there is more acceptance. “Church attenders are more inclined to hide that information even in confidential questionnaires as their faith requires them to ‘be anxious about nothing’ (Phil 4),” added Patterson.
But for those who do have faith belong to a congregation, their perspective generally aligns with the Gallup findings. Melanie Musson, wellness expert with QuickQuote.com, says “God is constant. When the world is falling apart, people can find refuge in God who doesn’t change. They are not consumed with the world because they have something bigger to rely on.”
Sarah Reyes, managing editor at Sleep Matters, added “In the middle of this pandemic in particular, having faith and holding on to that helps me deal with all these things because it gives me hope that everything will turn out fine soon. With faith, we can clear our worries and feel more connected to our souls. By looking to our Creator above, we do not feel alone. Going to church, I feel the same. I never feel alone because I know I am not.”