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To Reduce Stress Think about God


If you want to reduce your stress level and feel less upset, perhaps you should think about God. Investigators at the University of Toronto Scarborough found that when people think about God and religion, their brains respond in ways that allows them to react with less distress.

Stress, Religion and God

The physiological and psychological impacts of stress are well known and range from depression and anxiety disorders to gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction, hair loss, obesity, and diabetes, among others. Findings effective ways to help people cope with or manage stress, therefore, is an important goal.

Given that 85 percent of people in the world have some type of religious belief system, Michael Inzlicht, assistant psychology professor, and Alexa Tullet of the University of Toronto Scarborough decided to uncover what functions such beliefs might serve. Therefore they conducted experiments to determine what occurs in the brain when people think about religion and God.

The researchers asked participants to either write about religion or do a scrambled word task that included words related to religion and God. After these tasks were completed, the investigators recorded the brain wave activity of each participant as he or she completed a computerized task that was selected because it has a high rate of errors.

The results of the recordings showed that individuals who had been prompted to think about God and religion either consciously or unconsciously had decreased brain activity in the anterior cingulated cortex (ACC), an area associated with regulating arousal and alerting individuals when they make mistakes. In other words, thinking about religion and God allowed them to react with less distress to mistakes that provoke anxiety and stress.

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The researchers suggested that when religious people think about God, their thoughts may give them a way to order their world and to explain seemingly random events, which in turn reduces their distress. In contrast, the researchers found that atheists reacted differently: when they were unconsciously primed with ideas related to God, their ACC increased its activity and thus caused them more distress.

In another study published in March 2009, Inzlicht and two other colleagues conducted brain studies and found that believing in God can help minimize stress and block anxiety attacks. They discovered that the stronger a person’s religious belief and the more they believed in God, the less active was their ACC.

Inzlicht noted that the results of the latest study indicate that “thinking about religion makes you calm under fire.” He also pointed out that “there is some evidence that religious people live longer and they tend to be happier and healthier.” Does that mean atheists are doomed to experience more stress?

No, according to Inzlicht. The stress reduction experienced by believers in God and religion can occur in atheists as well. “We think this can occur with any meaning system that provides structure and helps people understand their world.” He noted that atheists might fare better if they were primed to think about their own beliefs.

It appears that thinking about God and religion has a calming effect on believers, making them feel less anxious and less stressed when they make an error. Atheists should not worry, however. Inzlicht offered that “We think this can occur with any meaning system that provides structure,” and he noted that perhaps atheists would do better if they thought more about their own beliefs.

Inzlicht M, Alexa M. Tullet. Psychologial Science 2010 Jun 17
Inzlicht M et al. Psychological Science 2009 May; 20(3): 385-92