Sometimes clients share with me that their family disapproves of them seeking therapy, urging them instead to rely on their religious community or turn to prayer. I also hear religious or spiritual clients express guilt about seeking secular mental health support - if they are truly connected to their faith and beliefs, shouldn’t their prayers be “fixing” everything?
The research behind how prayer might help
For some people, prayer is an important means of support, centering and reflection, and connection to something greater than oneself. Research shows that if prayer is a practice that resonates with you, praying can increase your sense of mastery over your life and reduce minor symptoms of depression.
Prayer often promotes acceptance of the current moment, alongside hope for the future and a sense of empowerment to affect positive changes - principles that are similar to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an evidence-based approach to mental health care proven to help people heal from trauma, anxiety, depression, and other challenges.
Some people find that praying regularly has the effect of creating structure and routine in their life - this grounding influence is beneficial to emotional wellness. For those who practice prayer in group settings, praying motivates them to connect more with other people, reducing the isolation that is so often detrimental to mental health.
Prayer itself can’t solve everything
“Mental health” is a bit of a misnomer for the experiences that bring people to therapy - the challenges that we call mental health often include mental, emotional, physical, and what some people understand as spiritual components. If you are a religious or spiritual person, practices from your tradition could be an important part of your journey. However, seeking support for the mental, emotional, and physical aspects is very important too.
Too often, misleading rhetoric about prayer can actually hinder the mental health healing journey. When “turning to prayer” becomes a means of minimizing the severity of a problem or avoiding taking remedial action, it stops being a supportive action and instead becomes an act of spiritual bypassing.
Spiritual bypassing is the practice of using spiritual concepts or ideas to disengage from life’s pain and complexity.
Examples of spiritual bypassing include:
- Encouraging abuse survivors to “forgive” perpetrators instead of being angry
- Avoiding acknowledging feeling unfulfilled in life and instead hyperfocusing on the idea finally feeling happy one day in heaven
- Ignoring conflicts or negative feelings in favor of a “good vibes only” mentality
- Believing goals and achievements can be “manifested”, without acknowledging how structural and intergenerational factors help and/or hinder personal success
Therapy and spirituality can and do coexist
You don’t need to choose between prayer and therapy - mental health support and religious and spiritual practices can both be part of your life.
If you’ve been thinking about whether therapy is right for you, click the button below to set up a free phone consultation. I’d love to chat with you more about your mental health, and how therapy could help.