Does religion stress us out or relieve anxiety?



Research on the relationship between religiosity and anxiety has been mixed, with some studies revealing a positive relation and other studies revealing a negative relation.

Source: “Priming God-Related Concepts Increases Anxiety and Task Persistence” from Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology

Priming religion before a difficult task made people work harder — but also stressed them out:

The current research used an experimental design, perhaps for the first time, to examine anxiety and task persistence during a stressful situation. Christians and Atheists/Agnostics/Others were primed with God-related or neutral (non-God related) concepts before completing an unsolvable anagram task described as a measure of verbal intelligence. The results revealed that the God-related primes increased both task persistence and anxiousness, which suggests that experimentally induced God-related thoughts caused participants to persist longer on a stressful task, but also to feel more anxious after finishing it. No effect of religious affiliation was found, however, indicating that God-related priming affected Christians and non-Christians in a similar fashion.

Source: “Priming God-Related Concepts Increases Anxiety and Task Persistence” from Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology

Yet religious ideas can be a source of stress relief:

The present research proposes that individuals who are socially excluded can turn to religion to cope with the experience. Empirical studies conducted to test this hypothesis consistently found that socially excluded persons reported (a) significantly higher levels of religious affiliation (Studies 1, 2, and 4) and (b) stronger intentions to engage in religious behaviors (Study 2) than comparable, nonexcluded individuals. Direct support for the stress-buffering function of religiousness was also found, with a religious prime reducing the aggression-eliciting effects of consequent social rejection (Study 5). These effects were observed in both Christian and Muslim samples, revealing that turning to religion can be a powerful coping response when dealing with social rejection. Theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.

Source: “Turning to God in the Face of Ostracism: Effects of Social Exclusion on Religiousness” from Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 36, No. 6, 742-753 (2010)

Stress relieving responses could be measured on a physiological level, but were only present in those who believed:

The world is a vast and complex place that can sometimes generate feelings of uncertainty and distress for its inhabitants. Although religion is associated with a sense of meaning and order, it remains unclear whether religious belief can actually cause people to feel less anxiety and distress. To test the anxiolytic power of religion, we conducted two experiments focusing on the error-related negativity (ERN)—a neural signal that arises from the anterior cingulate cortex and is associated with defensive responses to errors. The results indicate that for believers, conscious and nonconscious religious primes cause a decrease in ERN amplitude. In contrast, priming nonbelievers with religious concepts causes an increase in ERN amplitude. Overall, examining basic neurophysiological processes reveals the power of religion to act as a buffer against anxious reactions to self-generated, generic errors—but only for individuals who believe.

Source: “Reflecting on GodReligious Primes Can Reduce Neurophysiological Response to Errors” from Psychological Science

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