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The Power of Prayer and Meditation from a Scientific Perspective

By January 25, 2021Blog
the power of prayer and meditation From A Scientific Perspective

Our mental health and well-being is being tampered with on a daily, sometimes even hourly, basis. Now, more than ever, due to the response to coronavirus, we are struggling with our emotions, intellect, intuition, self-belief, finances, and more.

We walk, we talk to our friends, we do things to distract ourselves from the negative intrusive thoughts.

But what about those moments when we don’t have the energy or motivation for either of those strategies? Those are the moments when we could do with something that would help significantly as we sit there feeling awful, or lay there in floods of tears.

It turns out, the magical medicine you may be after is of a spiritual nature, and you don’t have to belong to a religion to use it.

There is a power in prayer and meditation, a power that transforms:

  • how your brain works,
  • how your body functions,
  • your mental and physical health,
  • your self-esteem,
  • your self-control,
  • your happiness.

Yep! At least that what the science says! As for you personally, you’ll have to try it to see for yourself.

As we’re already overwhelmed and struggling with our attention spans at the moment, here is a quick run down of the scientific basis for the power of prayer and meditation. And this compilation is by no means exhaustive.

The Power of Prayer and Meditation for Heart Health And Mental Health

Prayer and meditation might just help you live longer. And there are so many reasons for it.

To begin, a review of data by the American Heart Association (2017) [1] suggests mindfulness meditation could be a low cost way of reducing cardiovascular risk. It makes sense, too. Your brain affects your body and when you can quiet your mind and live in the present more, you experience less stress and anxiety stemming from repetitive negative thinking – which is linked to anxiety and depression – which means less overworking of the heart.

But it goes deeper than that. Mindfulness meditation causes long-term changes in the brain, changes that help with things like emotion regulation.

If, like so many people right now, you’ve been struggling with anxiety or an anxiety disorder, you’ll recognise the exhausting and stressful effects of frequent heart palpitations.

Those of you suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as a result of a one-off traumatic event or as a result of ongoing trauma such as being in a long-term abusive relationship (usually referred to as complex PTSD), will find the slightest thing can trigger your palpitations. Even just a raised voice can send your heart into overdrive.

Conditions such as PTSD can alter your heart rate variability (HRV), i.e. the variation between beat to beat changes [2]. Lower variation, i.e. lower HRV, is found amongst those suffering with PTSD.

What’s more, a massive meta-analytic review using data from a whopping 402,274 participants found that PTSD is independently associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease [3].

Therefore, if you frequently suffer from a fast or unusually strong heart beat in everyday moments, ex-veteran or not, PTSD or not, getting your heart rate back to that baseline of greater variation again, is incredibly important for your health and longevity. What that does is allow you to react to threatening or ‘threatening’ events in a measured way again. No more flying off the handle over something trivial, no more feeling scared or down over something that would normally give you little concern, no more hiding away from the world in a bid to control your surroundings.

To do that, several studies on people with PTSD and in some cases depression also, suggest that transcendental meditation can significantly help reduce symptoms [4, 5, 6].

You may also find that you have similar practices in your religion that mimic the repetitive chanting and submission to the present moment that is found in transcendental meditation.

For example, chanting with or without prayer beads as Christians and Muslims and Buddhists do, for example, or reading salat (Muslim prayers) which are both prayer and meditation in one practice.

In fact, research on the effects of Muslim prayers (the five daily ones) has found that during salat prayers, parasympathetic activity increased and sympathetic activity decreased [7]. In simple terms, it decreases the fight-or-flight response and increases the ‘rest-and-digest’ response. Therefore, regular salat prayers may aid relaxation, and reduce anxiety and cardiovascular risk.

Therefore, transcendental meditation, praying to a higher power, chanting with or without prayer beads, and salat prayers, may help you to ‘retrain’ your heart to return it back to a healthy baseline of greater beat-to-beat variations, thus alleviating anxiety and assisting your response to daily stress and threat.

Plus, mindfulness-based treatments have also been used with success for treating symptoms of PTSD [8].

Prayer and self-control

Praying itself, you know the hands together type, talking to God, as done by the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and others such as Hinduism, has also been found to create neural changes.

In one study, brain scans revealed that when members of Alcoholics Anonymous prayed, they not only reported a reduction in cravings, but also brain regions that control attention and emotion were activated [9] . In other words, prayer reduces addiction related cravings due to changes in brain functions brought about by prayer.

In an earlier study using four different experiments, prayer was consistently linked to a reduction of alcohol consumption in undergraduate students. These students identified as being Jewish, Christian or ‘other’ [10].

Mindfulness and self-esteem

Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation has also been linked to increased self-esteem and in turn, a positive impact on life satisfaction [11]. In particular, this study found that enhancing mindfulness in the present moment led to an increase in self-esteem in that present moment.

So when you need to boost your self-esteem and confidence there and then, mindfulness can help. As per this study, engaging in mindfulness meditation of the breath for 15 minutes can help boost your self-esteem immediately.

Sometimes you don’t have 15 minutes at your disposal though. This is when mindfulness or a ‘mini meditation’ may be an option.

A great description of the difference between mindfulness and mindfulness meditation is:

‘Mindfulness is the awareness of “some-thing,” while meditation is the awareness of “no-thing.”’

If you only have a minute or two, you may still find it helpful to ‘get out of your head’ and ground yourself in the present moment, focusing only on what you are absorbing through your senses. Or doing the mindfulness meditation for two minutes if that is all you have available. It can help you to distract yourself from the repetitive negative thinking that is sabotaging your self-esteem in that moment, such as self-criticism and worry.

In a later review of studies looking at the effects of mindfulness and mindfulness meditation on self-esteem, researchers conclude that multiple research findings do highlight a significant positive correlation between mindfulness and self-esteem with some studies demonstrating an increase in self-esteem following a mindfulness based intervention [12].

This could be down to a number of reasons, all linked to how you take charge of how you allow your thoughts to lower or raise your self-esteem.

The researchers highlight these four elucidating ways in which mindfulness may be increasing self-esteem:

  • Engaging in non-judgement thereby reducing self-criticism.
  • Focusing on the present making you less likely to focus on past negative beliefs or self-critical thoughts.
  • Not reacting to negative thoughts, not internalising them, thus reducing their impact upon your self-image.
  • And this one I love – identifying your thoughts as mental processes rather than facts.

So mindfulness and mindfulness meditation do help increase self-esteem in the moment, and may also be useful treatments for achieving overall consistently healthy self-esteem in the long-run.

Remember, it’s not what happens but the thoughts we attach to those events and experiences that determine how we feel and, in turn, what we do and the outcomes we consequently achieve.

Mindfulness and psychiatric symptoms

The effect of mindfulness group therapy has also been found to be as effective for treating depressive, anxiety and/or stress and adjustment disorders, as other common treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy [13].

This research highlights three important points.

Firstly, that engaging in mindfulness meditation before embarking on therapy, particularly if you can’t afford it or are on a waiting list, might be a highly effective treatment. You may not need the traditional therapy thereafter. Or if you still do, you may need less professional help over a shorter period of time, giving you inner peace more quickly and saving you money.

Secondly, that those psychiatric conditions are at least partially resolved by changing the current structure and functioning of your brain, something we know mindfulness meditation does – it rewires your brain differently causing it to work differently.

Thirdly, that doing mindfulness meditation with your partner or family whilst at home due to coronavirus restrictions, may be a great way to maintain good mental health as a family and provides you with a group activity you can share together. And we know finding a way to keep ourselves and our family members entertained and happy is a big need right now.

Prayer and meditation help your well-being and longevity

Clearly, prayer and meditation help the brain, body and mind in a number of ways. There are visible changes that take place in your brain when you pray and when you meditate.

If you are worried about what people might say about the fact that you believe in a higher power and pray or the fact that you engage in meditation, you needn’t be. Praying and meditating are the smart, healthy choice. And perhaps now more than ever, people are realising just how powerful it is.

Seems like praying and meditating, now, makes you one of the cool kids on the block!

 

References

1. Levine, Glenn & Lange, Richard & Bairey‐Merz, C. & Davidson, Richard & Jamerson, Kenneth & Mehta, Puja & Michos, Erin & Norris, Keith & Basu Ray, Indranill & Saban, Karen & Shah, Tina & Stein, Richard & Smith, Sidney. (2017). Meditation and Cardiovascular Risk Reduction: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Journal of the American Heart Association, 6. e002218. 10.1161/JAHA.117.002218.

2. Dennis, P. A., Watkins, L. L., Calhoun, P. S., Oddone, A., Sherwood, A., Dennis, M. F., Rissling, M. B., & Beckham, J. C. (2014). Posttraumatic stress, heart rate variability, and the mediating role of behavioral health risks. Psychosomatic medicine, 76(8), 629–637. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0000000000000110

3. Edmondson, D., Kronish, I. M., Shaffer, J. A., Falzon, L., & Burg, M. M. (2013). Posttraumatic stress disorder and risk for coronary heart disease: a meta-analytic review. American heart journal, 166(5), 806–814. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ahj.2013.07.031

4. Bandy CL, Dillbeck MC, Sezibera V, Taljaard L, Wilks M, Shapiro D, de Reuck J, Peycke R. (2020). Reduction of PTSD in South African University Students Using Transcendental Meditation Practice. Psychological Reports, 123(3), 725-740. doi: 10.1177/0033294119828036.

5. Shen, H., Chen, M., & Cui, D. (2020). Biological mechanism study of meditation and its application in mental disorders. General psychiatry, 33(4), e100214. https://doi.org/10.1136/gpsych-2020-100214

6. Nidich, S., Mills, P. J., Rainforth, M., Heppner, P., Schneider, R. H., Rosenthal, N. E., Salerno, J., Gaylord-King, C., & Rutledge, T. (2018). Non-trauma-focused meditation versus exposure therapy in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder: a randomised controlled trial. The lancet. Psychiatry, 5(12), 975–986. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(18)30384-5

7. Doufesh, H., Ibrahim, F., Ismail, N. A., & Wan Ahmad, W. A. (2014). Effect of Muslim prayer (Salat) on α electroencephalography and its relationship with autonomic nervous system activity. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 20(7), 558–562. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2013.0426

8. Boyd, J. E., Lanius, R. A., & McKinnon, M. C. (2018). Mindfulness-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder: a review of the treatment literature and neurobiological evidence. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience, 43(1), 7–25. https://doi.org/10.1503/jpn.170021

9. Marc Galanter, Zoran Josipovic, Helen Dermatis, Jochen Weber, Mary Alice Millard. (2016). An initial fMRI study on neural correlates of prayer in members of Alcoholics Anonymous. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse; DOI: 10.3109/00952990.2016.1141912

10. Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Marks, L. D., & Stillman, T. F. (2010). Invocations and intoxication: does prayer decrease alcohol consumption? Psychology of addictive behaviors : journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 24(2), 209–219. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018746

11. Pepping, Christopher & O’Donovan, Analise & Davis, Penelope. (2013). The positive effects of mindfulness on self-esteem. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 376-386. 10.1080/17439760.2013.807353.

12. Randal, C., Pratt, D. & Bucci, S. (2015). Mindfulness and Self-esteem: A Systematic Review. Mindfulness, 6, 1366–1378. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-015-0407-6

13. Sundquist, J., Palmér, K., Johansson, L., & Sundquist, K. (2017). The effect of mindfulness group therapy on a broad range of psychiatric symptoms: A randomised controlled trial in primary health care. European Psychiatry, 43, 19-27. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.01.328