Christian Counselling vs Secular Psychology: Is Prayer Good for Mental Health?

by Michael Hart, MA CCC

imagesIn the early years of psychology, particularly during the era of Freud, prayer and other
spiritual disciplines were viewed negatively and were largely scoffed at by those in the field of mental health. Christian Counselling therapists that advocated prayer as a coping mechanism for their clients were often scoffed at by secular psychologists and sometimes accused of hindering the progress of clients because they supported the client’s use of prayer. Freud, in his well known work, The Future of an Illusion, described religion as a “universal obsessional neurosis” and a “psychopathologic phenomena.” However, in the last decade there has been a plethora of studies that have proved Freud wrong; these studies show that spiritual disciplines are not liabilities but assets where emotional wellbeing is concerned.

In one such study In 2008, Claire Hollywell and Jan Walker critically analyzed 26 published
studies on the use of personal prayer and came to the following positive conclusions about prayer:
• “Prayer, measured by frequency, is usually associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety.” The study showed that people who prayed and had existing faith in God, tended to have lower levels of depression and anxiety than those who did not make use of prayer.
• “Prayer is a coping action that mediates between religious faith and wellbeing.” Researchers found that prayer was an effective coping mechanism and that religious people who used prayer when faced with adversity such as failing health, coped better than those who did not make use of prayer.
• “Prayer takes different forms, some beneficial, others possibly not: (a) Devotional prayers that take the form of an intimate dialogue with a supportive God are associated with improved optimism, wellbeing and function. (b) Prayers that involve only pleas for help in extremis may, in the absence of a pre-existing faith, be associated with increased distress and possibly poorer function.” The study found that prayers that were devotional, and involves intimate conversations with God about one’s circumstances, seemed to lead to improved wellbeing and better coping. However,researchers also concluded that people who did not have preexisting faith in God, and used prayer as a plea when highly stressful events entered their lives, did not benefit from prayer and tended to become even more distressed.
From the above scientific research by Hollywell and Walker, one can conclude that devotional prayer is an effective coping mechanism when used by those with “pre-existing faith” towards God, and that there is strong evidence that devotional prayer can and should be used by people of faith when faced with the challenges of life.
Christian Counselling therapists have long held the view that prayer is an effective coping tool that can help to bring hope and peace to troubled minds. These therapists have held strongly to this view despite dissenting voices from the field f psychology. It is indeed very refreshing to see that scientific research is now validating the stance taken  by these counselors.
Hollywell, Claire and Walker, Jan.(2008). Private Prayer as a Suitable Intervention for Hospitalized Patient: A Critical Review of the Literature. Journal of Clinical Nursing. Vol. 18 635-651.

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About Michael Hart

Michael Hart is a highly qualified psychotherapist whose training and experience allow him to use the respected Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC) designation of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. As Director of Elim Counselling Services, Michael not only offers counselling to clients, but leads Kingdom Life Workshops and hosts a counselling radio show, Life Transformations. Michael is a dynamic presenter and a gifted communicator who presents serious topics in a way that is easily understood and very entertaining. His academic writings and research have earned him two St. Peter's Awards from St. Paul University in Ottawa for excellence in the area of Christian Spirituality. Michael is mentioned on the Christian Counselling Network as a Christian Counsellor having the qualifications and training in both theology and counselling and as such is recognized as being a Christian Counsellor who not only goes by the name but is truly qualified to offer professional Christian Counselling.

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